So your family members (or out-of-town friends, or in-laws, take your pick!) are in town for the holidays, presents have been opened, feasts eaten, and now you need to entertain them. Naturally, you bring them to the Museum, knowing that you’ll be able to impress them with the architecture, a work of art in and of itself. But you want to impress them in the galleries, too; you want to show them something so incredible that it’ll even stun the know-it-all of the group.
Look no further than Claude Mellan’s Sudarium, currently on view in the Museum’s exhibition, Framing a Decade: Acquisitions of Prints and Drawings, 2001–2011. Skim through this blog post, impress your family with a mini-tour, and prepare to watch jaws drop. Guaranteed!
At first glance, this print seems to be just another image of a sudarium (that’s Latin for “sweat cloth”)—also known as Veronica’s veil. The story goes that Saint Veronica met Christ on one of his journeys, kindly wiped his brow with her veil, and, miraculously, his face was imprinted on the cloth. Artists throughout the ages have been drawn to this subject: since the image appeared miraculously, as if by God’s hand, to create an image of the sudarium was a bit like comparing your artistic ability to that of the Big Man himself. A little blasphemous? Perhaps. But it sure could do wonders for your artistic reputation.
Claude Mellan’s interpretation of the veil is indeed almost a miracle in and of itself. Ask your family and friends to take a close look at the tip of his nose, pointing out that it begins in a spiral, almost like the whorl of a fingerprint. Now have them follow the line, and watch their eyes widen. That’s right—Mellan created this print out of one single line, varying the pressure to create shadows and depth within Christ’s face.
They’ll think that’s pretty great. But wait until you tell them how it was made—not a pen or brush and ink drawing, where it could conceivably be pretty easy to change your pressure to vary the lines. Nope, this is a print—more specifically, an engraving. Mellan got a big sheet of metal and incised it with a sharp tool called a burin. I’m not sure if you’ve ever incised metal, you’ll say to your family, but it’s not exactly easy to do–kind of like drawing with a sharp pair of scissors on a car door. After he incised the lines, Mellan brushed ink onto the metal plate, flipped it over onto a piece of paper, and ran it through a heavy printing press—which means, of course, that the image was reversed. So in addition to drawing the whole thing with one line, he even incised the Latin inscription at the bottom backwards.
If that’s not enough, you can share a behind-the-scenes tidbit straight from the curator’s mouth. Mary Chapin, the Museum’s Associate Curator for Prints & Drawings, who put the Framing a Decade exhibition together, told me that this print was printed posthumously. It’s not always good to have a print that wasn’t printed by the artist himself—but in this case, she said, the print was so popular and the quality of this particular one so great, that the Museum felt just fine about acquiring it. They even did some scientific research on the paper, finding it was printed only about 70 years after Mellan’s death—not too bad at all.
Got any more tips for showing off the Museum to visitors of our fair city? (If they’re good, maybe we’ll even add them to another edition of our special “Impress the Out-of-Towners” tour pamphlet!) Let us know in the comments below!
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.