CHAMPAIGN — As she looked closely at French artist Claude Mellan’s 1649 print, “Veil of Veronica,” as an undergraduate art student at the University of Kansas in the early 2000s, Maureen Warren was immediately struck by the complexity of a work made from a single line.
That line, which Mellan painstakingly engraved into a copper plate before printing it onto paper, spirals out from the middle, varying in width, to make a portrait of Jesus Christ. A Latin inscription on the print reads, “Like No Other,” which refers to Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary, the cloth known as the “Veil of Veronica” that is said to contain an imprint of Christ’s face, and the print itself.
“It’s a pretty bold claim to compare yourself to Jesus Christ,” said Warren, now curator of European and American art at Krannert Art Museum’s, “but really nobody ever could copy it. ... A lot of artists tried to recreate that and it’s just novel. It’s an incredible technical feat.”
The print played a part in inspiring Warren to switch her focus from her own artwork, including the study of printmaking, to art history.
Shortly after she took on her current role at the museum in 2015, art collectors David Chambers and John Crane sent an email to curators and printmaking enthusiasts offering to buy pieces for art museums that were curating exhibits featuring prints from the early-modern period of the 16th through 19th centuries.
Warren immediately knew what she wanted to request. Chambers and Crane agreed that they’d buy Mellan’s “Veil of Veronica” for the museum, which Warren said is “one of the most famous and important French prints of all time.”
Mellan’s print holds a prominent place in “Sacred/Supernatural: Religion, Myth, and Magic in European Prints, 1450-1900,” an exhibit on display through May 15 at the museum in Champaign. The 373-year-old print itself is the size of a typical piece of paper, but the exhibit also features an 8-foot reproduction of just over half of the print, which was created by stitching together several high-resolution photos.
“There aren’t a lot of works of art that are the size of a standard sheet of paper that you could blow up 8 feet tall and have it still be compelling,” Warren said.
When viewers enter the gallery, Warren hopes they don’t simply breeze past the works of art. She hopes they stop and look closely and take note of their intricacies.
“It’s really important to me that visitors don’t just stop at identifying the subjects of a print and say, ‘Oh, that’s the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus’ or whatever,” she said, “but I hope they would look into how that image is made, what kinds of lines are used, how they’re used, if they’re gestural and sketchy or if they’re firm and straight, to kind of think about the ‘How’ of printmaking.”
The gallery features dozens of pieces, mostly from the museum’s archives, but also art and books from the Spurlock Museum, the University of Illinois’ Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Ricker Library of Architecture and Art, and several more pieces loaned from Chambers and Crane. The pieces span the subjects of religion and topics like witchcraft and sorcery.
Warren hopes visitors will see something that changes their mindset about printmaking and other art from the time period, just like her perspective changed when she first laid eyes on Mellan’s “Veil of Veronica.”
“I think people sometimes have preconceptions about art of this period, especially religious art, as being stuffy or boring or uninteresting,” Warren said. “So, to show something that’s really dynamic and unexpected can change their perceptions of it for the better.”