Art: Enduring to Dazzle

The artist who 600 years ago made the altarpiece shown on the opposite page used durable materials, gilded silver, and enamel, as though he hoped that it would last to bedazzle thousands in, perhaps, the 20th century. It did; at its new permanent home in The Cloisters, the branch of Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art that houses medieval treasures, it conveys a sense of perfect and untarnished work from a hand long since turned to dust. But it came through only by luck: a large proportion of contemporaneous objects of art made of precious...

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