Rijksmuseum shows its biggest artworks – literally (2022)

Drawings spanning 12 metres in height and a 16-metre-long print from the 17th century are among the large-scale works being displayed in the Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum for an exhibition of the renowned gallery's biggest artworks.

3 mins read
The exhibition "XXL Paper" in the Rijksmuseum involves 12-metre-high drawings and a 16-metre-long print from the 17th century. (Reuters)

This is a hand-painted cyclorama from 1651 depicting the funeral procession of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, and design drawings for the 12-metre-tall stained glass windows of the exhibition XXL Paper – big, bigger, biggest! in Rijksmuseum.

These works would otherwise never be shown, said the museum’s director, Taco Dibbits, at the presentation of “XXL Paper – Big, Bigger, Biggest”, which includes works made of paper from around 1500 to the present day. “They are way too big and way too delicate.”

To display the artworks, the museum had to build special scaffolding, as the Rijksmuseum museum’s halls were not high or long enough.

Download the image 2
Landing of Scipio Africanus near Carthago, Michiel Coxie (I) (attributed to), c. 1555, gouache, height 248 cm × width 257 cm. Purchased with the support of the Jaffé-Pierson Stichting and the Vereniging Rembrandt.

One of the oldest works now on display is a woodcut from 1535, 7 metres high, showing the family tree of Charles V. Another unique piece is a paper altarpiece from 1650.

The showpiece is a hand-painted panorama, a kind of precursor to the cinema that spans span three walls of a hall over 23 metres. It was made around 1850 and shows landscapes of Switzerland, Italy and Austria in pastel colours.

Download the image 5 1
Design of the stained glass window of the north transept of the Utrecht Dom (detail), Richard Nicolaüs Roland Holst, c. 1934, height c. 1650 cm × width c. 490 cm. R. Roland Holst Bequest.

The scroll had been found by chance in the depot after decades. “For years it was thought to be wallpaper,” said the head of the restoration studio, Idelette van Leeuwen.

“The whole artwork was originally about 1,500 metres long.” But where the rest remained is a mystery, she said.

It is a so-called “cyclorama”, which was wound on a special apparatus like a film in front of visitors. Research revealed that the owner had travelled with this work through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and England. dpa via Reuters

Download the image 4 1
One Hundred Children (detail), Xu Yanghong, c. 1700 – c. 1799, ink on paper, height 31 cm × width 686,5 cm. Purchased with the support of Rituals

Gigantic moving panorama of landscapes of Switzerland, Austria and Italy

The greatest discovery of all was the cyclorama, which unknown to anyone had lain rolled up in the depot for decades – in the collection database it was described as a ‘wall hanging’. It was in preparation for this exhibition that the object was unrolled and studied for the first time. The vibrant pastel colours were clearly hand-painted, and the small holes at the top of the paper raised questions about whether it was actually a wall hanging at all.

Conservators of the Rijksmuseum preparing het Giant Cyclorama for the exhibition XXL Paper.. Photo: Rijksmuseum/Bibi Veth

Archival research revealed that this work was part of the Reuzencylorama, a gigantic, 1,500-metre-long moving panorama of landscapes of Switzerland, Austria and Italy. It was commissioned in the mid-19th century by the German businessman Ferdinand Reichardt and painted in Berlin by several set builders. Reichardt toured with the panorama trough the Netherlands, Belgium and England, giving shows that transported audiences on a journey through Southern Europe.

Rarity – paper and time

Paper offers some great advantages over other media: it is relatively cheap, and printing techniques make it possible to reproduce and distribute large numbers of copies. It is also a simple matter to glue large sheets together to create expansive tableaus.

Using paper also has its drawbacks, one being that it is delicate and therefore susceptible to damage, and large numbers of works made of this material have been lost over the centuries. Many of the exhibits in XXL Paper are exceptionally rare, an example being the unique paper altarpiece from 1650 (Calvary with the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and Mary Magdalen, print, 196 x 126 cm).

Gunkanjima, Sanne Peper, 2008, inkjet print, height 144,7 cm × width 199,5 cm.

Long tradition of fragility

This exhibition presents works dating from 1500 to the present day. One of the earliest exhibits is the c. 1535 family tree of Emperor Charles V by Robert Péril (woodcut, almost 7 metres tall). XXL Paper also features contemporary works such as Gunkanjima by Sanne Peper (photograph, 125 x 178 cm) and De nachtwolken drijven het vergetene mee (The night-time clouds carry off the forgotten one) by Jacobien de Rooij (drawing, 306 x 606 cm).

Actual size

Paper is also used in design processes, and the exhibition includes several actual-size design drawings, or cartons, for stained glass windows, a tapestry and other works. The enormous drawings for the windows of the St Bavokerk in Haarlem are 16th-century in origin, while the drawings for the windows of St Martin’s Cathedral in Utrecht were made by Richard Roland Holst in the 20th century.

Fragment of a cyclorama (moving panorama) (detail), Borgmann brothers and Heinrich Heyl (attributed to), c. 1853, width 180 cm × length 2309 cm. The conservation of the cyclorama is made possible by the Bank ten Cate & Cie. Fund/Rijksmuseum Fund

These enormous works are not only impressive to look at, but also show that in 400 years the craft of stained glass window making has hardly changed.

These and many other large works on paper feature in the XXL Paper exhibition, Rijksmuseum, running from 1 July to 4 September 2022.

Join Our Mailing List

[contact-form-7 id="9206" title="Sidebar Newsletter"]