A recent visit to the Cloisters, the uptown medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, brought home a truth that I’ve known but rarely felt: That medieval sculptures and buildings were almost always brightly painted. It makes way more sense of a stained glass like the one at right, from Germany in about 1300, to imagine it in a setting that included bright statues like the one at left, from Italy in about 1350. Instead of either glass or statue standing out as a note of designer color in an elegant stone box – as in most current museums and churches – both would originally have been parts of a total decor that included all the bright hues of God’s creation. That vision also makes more sense of the brightly painted altarpieces of the 14th and 15th centuries: The glowing fictions they present would have been of a piece with the glowing reality all around them. There would have been continuity between the painted and real world, instead of disjunction.
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