Leuven goes in search of Utopia


A series of events, paired with a major exhibition, celebrate the 500 years since Thomas More’s Utopia was published in the city

Gimme More

Leuven is going to town celebrating 500 years since Thomas More’s Utopia was published in the city, with a major exhibition at M Museum and a series of smaller events.

A rare first edition of the book – smaller than you might imagine, given its impact – is one of the first exhibits you’ll see in In Search of Utopia. It’s returned to the city where it first rolled off the presses back in 1516.

The book describes a fictional island nation, whose name has come to be a byword for an imaginary, ideal world. Its theme of striving for a better existence still resonates today. Many of the works on show portray notions of other realms, be they undiscovered distant lands or heavenly (and hellish) kingdoms, with the promise of hope never far away.

The exhibition is divided into four sections: the book and its cultural context, paradise and hell, the world beyond the horizon and scientific inquiry. It contains 80 sculptures, paintings, globes and instruments from museums and collections around the world, with a selection of Flemish Masters and a portrait borrowed from the private collection of Queen Elizabeth.

Eye-catching pieces include the “Enclosed Gardens of Mechelen” (pictured): intricate cabinets made by an order of nuns containing sculptures, relics and souvenirs of pilgrimages, symbolising spiritual objectives. Thanks to subtle lighting, they seem to glow.

In the 16th century, you didn’t have to go far before you reached the edge of the known universe, and a series of maps and tapestries depict strange lands and mythical creatures. French cartographer Pierre Descelier’s sumptuous “Mappa Mundi”, on loan from the British Library, is a highlight.

He designed it for the French king in 1550 to illustrate the distant lands that seafarers were beginning to discover. What it lacks in geographical accuracy, it makes up for in beauty.

Until 17 January, M Museum, Leuven

Photo: Dirk Pauwels