Jousting knights on horseback. Gleaming armor. A gilded carriage. Royal regalia. Masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Velázquez and dozens of other A-list painters.
When the exhibition “The Habsburgs: Rarely Seen Masterpieces From Europe’s Greatest Dynasty” debuts in February at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), it will bring to Minnesota 500 years of European royal treasures, most of which have never left Austria.
“There are unbelievable masterpieces in the show. It really is astonishing,” said MIA Director Kaywin Feldman, who plans the show as the first of four major exhibits to mark the centennial of the museum’s founding in 1915. The 100th birthday celebration will also include a series of weekly “surprises” ranging from gallery events and additions to the MIA collection to collaborations with contemporary artists. “I fully expect that the entire community is going to come back 52 times next year,” Feldman joked.
She and MIA curators organized the exhibition in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, where the show will travel after its Twin Cities premiere. It will be on view in Minneapolis from Feb. 15 to May 10, 2015.
All of the art comes from the legendary Kunsthistorisches Museum, a sprawling Viennese complex that includes specialized museums of paintings and sculpture, carriages, arms and armor, antiquities, musical instruments, costumes and more.
Most of the objects were owned by the Habsburgs, a fabulously wealthy dynasty that was in power in European politics from the 1400s until 1918, when World War I dissolved the German-allied Austro-Hungarian Empire.
At various times Habsburg family members ruled Spain, the Netherlands, much of Germany and parts of Italy, as well as their hereditary redoubts in Austria, Hungary and Eastern Europe. What they didn’t control outright, they were often linked to through marriages and other alliances: Marie Antoinette was a Habsburg as was Napoleon’s second wife.
“We wanted to tell the story of the Habsburgs, one of the most important dynasties in human history and not well known in America,” said Feldman.
The show will feature 93 objects, including 35 important paintings, three of which have never appeared in the U.S. before:
• Caravaggio’s “The Crowning With Thorns,” a brooding image of Christ being tortured, painted in 1602-04.
• Hans Holbein’s 1536 portrait of Jane Seymour, the third wife of England’s Henry VIII.
• Correggio’s “Jupiter and Io,” a luscious 1530 image of a nude beauty (Io) being embraced by a furry cloud (Jupiter) that scholarly wags sometimes dub the sexiest “old master” picture in Europe.
“It is one of the most erotic paintings in Western art,” Feldman said.
The show will be divided into three sections, each introduced by a dramatic tableau setting up a period in Habsburg history. The first will evoke a late-medieval/early Renaissance joust featuring suits of armor displayed on horse mannequins. Dating from about 1450 to the 1600s when the Habsburgs were consolidating power, that section will include sabers, armor, tapestries and paintings.
The second section, spanning the Golden Age of 17th and 18th century baroque art, will be introduced by a hand-carved sleigh and the 1750 carriage of Marie Antoinette’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa. It includes objects of carved ivory, bejeweled crucifixes, luxurious religious vestments, major paintings and sculptures.
The third section, “Twilight of the Empire,” begins with a tableau of 19th century uniforms, coronation robes and evening gowns.
“We jokingly call the horse mannequins ‘horsequins,’ ” Feldman said. “And though we own one of our own, we were told we have to use theirs because they have detachable ears and movable jaws so you can put their regalia on them.”
The museum had to borrow six of the horsequins — two for armor displayed in the joust, two for the 1750 carriage and two for the gilded sleigh.
“We are cheating a bit though because no self-respecting Habsburg would ride in a carriage pulled by only two horses,” Feldman said.