Visit In search of Utopia at M - Museum Leuven 20.10.2016 - 17.01.2017

Portrait of a Princess

This work by Jan Gossaert tells the whole story of In Search of Utopia in one magnificent image: Portrait of a Young Danish Princess with an Armillary Sphere. The armillary sphere that she is holding in her hand represents the universe, but in the time of Thomas More, it was also a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. The metal rings represent the circles of heaven.

The princess is intentionally depicted holding the scientific instrument upside down! Jan Gossaert thus brilliantly coveys the message of Utopia: turning things upside down and being open to innovation will ensure new and exciting ideas. 


In Search of Utopia is your armillary sphere. It offers a unique perspective on the revolutions and reforms of the sixteenth century. The exhibition enriches your knowledge in four chapters. Step by step, you will come to understand, value and admire this exciting period. In Search of Utopia is a feast for the eyes.

Utopia by Thomas More (1516) 

A golden book from Leuven conquers the world

Leuven, December 1516. On the corner of the current Naamsestraat and Standonckstraat, the first copy of Utopia roles off the press of printer Dirk Martens. 'A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia', as the subtitle proclaimed. Thomas More wrote the work out of frustration for the fetid corruption and misrule in English government and society. His response was Utopia: an imaginary island where happiness and justice reigned supreme. Utopia was a makeable society, which landed in Thomas More’s Church-dominated world like a bomb.

Utopia is a milestone that heralded a new age in European thought. A good friend of Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, was another innovator. You will undoubtedly know his Praise of Folly – another celebrated work of that period. More and Erasmus’ manifestos gave an enormous impulse to society. In the 15th and 16th century, painters, weavers and sculptors were inspired by the dream of an ideal world, while the urge to discover new horizons led to previously unseen levels of creative production.

The exhibition exudes the creative energy of that period. The innovation, the search for the unknown and the attachment to ideals and dream worlds produces a magnificent collection of works.


Utopia for beginners: Learn more about Thomas More

For those who are no so familiar with Thomas More, the humanist movement or Utopia, there is a concise introduction at the beginning of the exhibition. A short documentary will immerse you in this unique period. Don’t miss it, even if you thought you did already know Thomas More.

Dream Worlds

Art between heaven and hell

Utopia is not only the story of dreams and ideals. Failure and disappointment are also characteristics of the search for a new society. The dream remains intact or it becomes a nightmare. This duality determines the character of the second aspect of the exhibition: success or failure.

Utopia illustrates both. More underscores the importance of harmony: from the redistribution of wealth to equal opportunity for all: rich, poor, man, woman. There is freedom of religion and even taboo subjects like euthanasia are commonly practiced. But the ideal world also has shadowy sides. People are excluded and forbidden access to places where they might enjoy life. How recognizable! To emphasize this duality, there are two spaces: the utopia and its opposite, the dystopia.

A striking example of the ideal world is the Festival of the Archers by the Master of Frankfurt. You see a group of people in a pleasant garden enjoying all good things. But the anonymous painter isn’t blind to the other reality: another group of people is kept away from the feast by armed guards. The gate is closed. Uninvited guests are not welcome. 


Another expression of the perfect world is the breathtakingly beautiful Enclosed Gardens. These little masterpieces, which were specially restored for the exhibition, are representation of an ideal, spiritual and heavenly world. 


The underside of utopia, the dystopia, is highlighted in a separate space. There you will find an intense interplay of passion, devotion and terror. Rare beauty and horrific inhumanity come together to create incredible tension. Artists make breath-taking depictions of the fires of hell from which it seems impossible to escape. This is a unique opportunity to see masterpieces by Flemish Masters that are being exhibited at M temporarily, so don’t miss it.

Beyond the horizon

Depicting the Unknown

Utopia marks the beginning of a period of intense innovation and voyages of discovery to new worlds beyond the horizon. Artists were fuelled by curiosity and their creativity was invigorated like never before. In this part of the exhibition In Search of Utopia, you will follow in their footsteps and discover the unbridled power of their imaginations. Beyond the Horizon is a magnificent collection of mythical unicorns, exotic animals and valuable pigments that arrived in our region for the first time. You will meet monsters and bizarre wild people from distant lands. The World Beyond the Horizon became much less mysterious after the French cartographer Pierre Desceliers drew his famous Mappa mundi on parchment for the French king. Distant and unknown regions of the Americas, Asia and Africa were an immense source of inspiration. Stories and fantasies fed the imaginations of artists and resulted in art-historical masterpieces. The discovery of the world gained considerable speed in this period, and this part of the exhibition reveals how artists transformed this exciting period into innovation: Beyond the Horizon – Depicting the Unknown. M has rarely had the privilege of exhibiting so many masterpieces.

The Universe in Your Hand

Dreams of Space and Time

In the fourth and last section of the exhibition In Search of Utopia you will experience a sublime final chord. The desire for the ideal world was given new dimensions in art. People wanted to understand the universe and eternity better, not merely to believe. They turned the armillary sphere on its head themselves, as it were, and assiduously started looking for their Utopia. Science and art fuse together in one grandiose form. People hold the universe in their hand, just like Jan Gossaert portrayed the young princess. What is more: if a child dares to attempt it, why should we still hesitate?

Utopia is synonymous with the search for the boundaries of the universe. Science naturally gave this search a tremendous impulse. The exhibition will introduce you to original scientific measuring instruments made in Leuven in the 16th century. At that period, Leuven was a leading city for the production of armillary spheres and astrolabes. These instruments measured the height and location of the heavenly bodies. Gerard Mercator, Gemma Frisius and Gualterus Arsenius turned these navigational tools into astonishing little works of art. In Search of Utopia has brought together no fewer than five of the seven surviving armillary spheres. They have come to Leuven from across the world. This is a very special and important event because they are being exhibited in Leuven together for the first time. So and come and dream of space and time while In Search of Utopia.

Are you fascinated by Thomas More? Have a look at the programme guide because there are no fewer than 25 exhibitions and events on the theme of Utopia. On 17 January 2017, Leuven will bid farewell to Thomas More so make sure you don’t miss any of these exclusive events.

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