In Search of Utopia, how the world was perceived 500 years ago, in 80 top pieces

Aren't we all in search of the perfect world? And does it, or does it not exist? The question goes back a long time, and in 1515 Thomas More devoted a whole book to it, "Utopia". Leuven's M Museum is hosting a special exhibition to revive the world as it was 500 years ago and to highlight the world of the English humanist at that time. A must-see with 80 masterpieces brought together from various corners of the world. Flandersnews visited the exhibition and talked to curator Jan Van der Stock: "I started off with some 1,000 pieces, so what you see here is sheer pureness."
Curator Jan Van der Stock talks of a "unique, high-quality" collection.

"Everyone is equal and you work 6 hours a day"

"Everyone is equal and you only have to work 6 hours a day. But beware, there are no pubs in Utopia, and you are supposed to spend your free time after work in a useful way, e.g. by studying, or making yourself useful for society. (...) Studying is of the utmost importance. The theory is that the basis for a good life is formed by knowledge. In other words, knowledge is power."

A teacher is addressing her class of teenage students in the M Museum in Leuven, summing up what the humanist approach of life was. Thomas More created his "perfect society" on the imaginary island of Utopia, which was situated 'nowhere', somewhere far beyond the horizon. While this world may have been imaginary, the desire for this world was real.

Why Leuven?

The link with Leuven is an obvious one. More had good contacts here, with his other humanist friend and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus and the city's Registrar Pieter Gillis among others. They helped him publish the very first version of his iconic book "Utopia" in Leuven in 1516.

Now, we know that the Earth is not centre of our solar system, and our explorations go far beyond our globe, with missions to Mars and Jupiter. But in the early 16th century, mankind was still discovering the world in all its vastness and unknown aspects.

It was a fascinating, but hard world. More was beheaded in 1535, 20 years after writing Utopia, for being at loggerheads with King Henry VIII and after having been his personal advisor.

80 masterpieces from renowned museums

The exhibition 'In Search of Utopia' gives an inspiring taste of what the world was like 500 years ago, using 80 different masterpieces, some of which were never on display together before, like the portrait of Erasmus and the portrait of Gillis, two friends who are reunited after 500 years, paintings by Quinten Metsys.

Curator Jan Van der Stock managed to borrow items from various renowned museums like London's National Gallery, Madrid's Prado, New York's Metropolitan and other museums in Rome, Munich, Chicago, Milan etc. to Leuven for the occasion.

7 years of searching and negotiating

Van der Stock's gigantic task started 7 years ago. "I started off with a list of 1,000 to 1,500 works in my head", he tells us when we meet him in one of the museum's spacious rooms. What we see in the museum, is the result of a very strict selection process, centring on quality. "Many of the things you see here, have never been on display. It's all high-level."

Utopia has a link with the present world, even with expats. "Utopia is actually looking for a better world. You may never find it as a whole, but you can at least search for it."

The Queen contributed!

Utopia is represented by 80 objects or works of art, from massive tapestries to books, paintings, statues, historic maps etc.

There is the original first copy of More's book Utopia, surprisingly small but shining like a jewel, the portrait paintings of Erasmus (borrowed from Queen Elizabeth's private collection!) and Pieter Gillis by Quinten Metsys, the gigantic tapestry representing The Garden of Earthly Delights based on the work of Hieronymus Bosch, or Vasco Da Gama's landing in India, the altarpieces by the Mechelen sisters and the breathtaking portrait of Princess Dorothea from Denmark that shoots you right back in time.

Asking the curator what he likes most is a false question, since he considers every piece as valuable as another and the result of a rigid selection process, but Van der Stock particularly mentions the armillary spheres in the final part of the exhibition, among other things. The spheres have been reunited for the occasion.

"Everyone has to work. Agree or not?"

The exhibition includes one interactive part which confronts you with 10 very practical questions, to test how much you and Thomas More think in the same way about Utopia or the ideal society. If you haven't read the book, this makes More's ideas very tangible.

The first thesis goes like this: "Everyone who is capable of working has to work. In that way, there is no unemployment. Men and women do the same work." More will probably have most followers for the 3rd thesis: "Everyone should work 6 hours per day" but there is also "Agriculture is the most important thing", "Euthanasia should be allowed" etcetera.

Until now, visitors' answers match More's ideas for 62 percent. But in fact, the questions show that More and Erasmus had ideas which are still very up-to-date right now. Just like our eternal search for Utopia. Wouldn't we all want to discover a new world?

'In Search of Utopia' practical

"The Future is More - 500 Years of Utopia" is a City Festival with a special exhibition in Leuven's M Museum (just a 10 minute walk from Leuven station) until 17 January.

The admission fee includes a practical audio guide in French, Dutch, or English. Click here for practical information on opening hours and ticket prices.

The exhibition includes 4 parts: the first room centres on the person Thomas More, who he was and why he got to Leuven; the second part 'Beyond Utopia' is about images of paradise and hell (Utopia versus Dystopia); a third part is 'Beyond the Horizon' and shows what image people had of the unknown world in the early 1,500s; the fourth part is called 'The Universe in your hand'.  

In Search of Utopia is just the exhibition, but Leuven celebrates Thomas More with a whole array of events (see the above link).