BRUNSWICK — While there are many striking things about the new exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” one of them is something the public doesn’t see, a neat trick pulled off by its curator: That is, the attribution of a number of works going back to the turn of the 16th century.

“It’s really exciting, actually,” said Bowdoin Professor of Renaissance Art Steve Perkinson, “to be able to put a name to some of these pieces that previously would have been IDed in an exhibit as simply, ‘Germany,’ or ‘France.’ Some of them have never even been seen in North America. We’re very lucky to have been able to acquire them for this exhibit.”

“The Ivory Mirror” opened June 24 and will run through Nov. 26. It examines the theme of mortality in Renaissance life, with an astonishing collection of ivory creations, called “memento mori” (“remember death”), rarely seen in one place and certainly rarely seen north of Boston. The exhibit will be complemented by numerous panels, poetry and music events, guest speakers and film screenings, and will play host to an international symposium of scholars who will address the fascinating intersection of death in art and high society in Renaissance Europe.

The show includes artworks on loan from various European and American institutions, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The ivory pieces—comprised of small statuary, beads and jewelry—are contextualized among paintings, texts and prints from the 15th and 16th century, including several items from Bowdoin’s own collection. Magnifying glasses assist the viewer in observing the astonishing detail of dime-sized beads and statues that often run little more than two or three inches in height.

“These works, with their gruesome details of death, may seem more associated with the medieval period, too dark for the ‘enlightened’ Renaissance,” Perkinson said, “but the Black Death occurred more than a century before the rise of memento mori. They’re not about the plague, but more about finding balance, between a new prosperity and how to not get caught up in wealth and fashion … how to remember to live a ‘good life.’”

“Europe was more prosperous than it had ever been, new trade routes had opened, and suddenly there was ivory, gold, ostrich feathers, just an abundance of stuff. People were thinking more about who they were, what kind of life they were living. The underlying message was, ‘we are all same in death,’” he added.

Instructive manuscripts from various Ars moriendi (basically, manuals on death) and “books of hours” (Christian devotional books) guided readers on how they might live a “good life” and die a “good death.” These texts—a few are on display—along with the memento mori, helped drive home the message: You may be beautiful, you may be successful and/or rich, but you will die, as we all do, and one should be mindful of that fact.

The carved pieces are multifaceted, depicting stages of life and death, or types of people (merchants, scholars, monks). Examination with a magnifying glass reveals inscriptions in small text, which serve as reminders—in case the decaying skulls and vermin don’t do it—of our pending demise. Inscriptions, sometimes in a headpiece or a bone, might read, “I am here to die,” or, in the case of the piece shown here, “O Death, how bitter/is the memory of you,” carved in Latin.

Perkinson’s intense focus and collaboration with art historian and scholar Katherine Baker of the Arkansas State University led to the identification of France’s Chicart Bailly as the creator of numerous pieces, including the beautiful work seen here. It’s an elephant ivory pendant for a rosary, ca. 1500-1530, standing 2-3/4-inches high and most likely carved in Bailly’s workshop in Paris. It features two intricately detailed sides, one depicting the subject’s passing and the other a skull crawling with reptiles.

“Working from inventory notes and other texts, Katherine—who specializes in a particular 16th-century script—and I realized some pieces were clearly Chicart Bailly’s,” Perkinson said. “It was amazing to be able to put his name to them.”

As exciting as that was for Perkinson, there are still numerous works in the exhibit attributed only to their places of origin. Those “aha!” moments are too rare.

Perkinson conceived the show when Bowdoin acquired a memento mori prayer bead and a print. “I knew when we acquired these that the memento mori theme was a very significant part of Renaissance culture, but I felt that the reasons for its popularity weren’t fully understood by scholars. At the same time, I felt that it was a theme that would have considerable interest to audiences today, not only to our students at the college but the larger community, as well, as the theme raises questions that are of real resonance today: How do we deal with the fact of our mortality? How does that fact influence the choices we make about how to live? And so on.”

The pieces not only conveyed a moralizing message, but were also meant to provoke a response to the art itself, Perkinson said. In speaking of their “sorrowful beauty, and their beautiful sorrow,” the art professor’s enthusiasm for the topic is palpable.

“Look at this,” he says, gesturing to a jewel-encrusted brooch, where a tiny skull lurks at its center. “Even the blingy-est piece said, ‘I am not vainglorious!’”

That minuscule nod to mortality absolved the wearer of all guilt for a lush life, apparently. Not a bad way to live.

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