The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400–1750)

Images of the human body can generate profound physical and emotional responses. For viewers in the 15th to 18th centuries, works of art were not simply aesthetic objects worthy of admiration: they activated memory, inspired devotion and fueled desire. According to medical and religious thought at the time, depictions of human figures acted on both mind and body, which were considered deeply interconnected. A portrait could “make the absent present,” as if the depicted person were still flesh and blood; a portrayal of a tortured martyr could cause the viewer to empathize with or even feel his or her torment; and representations of beautiful lovers could lead to the conception of handsome and healthy children. The Expressive Body displays more than 60 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from the Museum’s collections, ranging from artists like Giambologna and Rembrandt who produced works for wealthy collectors, to devotional images for non-elite audiences in 15th-century Italy and colonial Mexico. Through these objects, this exhibition reveals the historically affective power of the human form to connect viewers to the richness of human experience.