23 October 2013

Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim

Baptismal Font, circa 1226. Copper alloy.

In October, DH and I took Amtrak from Boston to New York for a presentation at the Metropolitan Museum. Before the evening event, we took in an exhibit of  medieval art visiting from Germany. If there were more evidence that the old historical label for this time period, the "Dark Ages," is a complete misnomer, this show provides such proof. The art displays technical excellence, especially in metallurgy, and an ability to crystallize - and elicit -  a full range of emotional response.

Baptismal Font. Virgin Mary with Jesus.
Baptismal Font, detail. Moses parting the Red Sea.

Formally titled Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, the art is on view through January 5, 2014 and was reviewed by Holland Cotter in the New York Times.  Whatever  one's religious beliefs, or lack thereof, the show is accessible in both size - one room - and in theme: the ability, indeed the compulsion, of men and women to imbue inanimate objects with meaning and power.

Reigning from 919 AD until 1024, the northern German Ottonian dynasty established Hildesheim as a royal power base, anchored by a grand cathedral.  Hildesheim is located in Lower Saxony; this is the Saxon in "Anglo-Saxon."  Successions of Ottonian Holy Roman Emperors and Saxon bishops utilized their wealth to fund and commission architecture and artifacts during the brief Carolingian/Ottonian renaissance. What Holland Cotter calls the  "material richness" of this movement was heavily influenced by renewed contact with Byzantium.  The wife of Otto II, Theophanu (ca 960 - 991), was a well-connected Byzantine native who supposedly introduced the fork to Europe.   In addition, noblewomen of the period, such as Matilda of Ringelheim, founded abbeys and convents for which devotional objects were needed.

Another leading figure in this renaissance, Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim from 993 to 1022, is a presiding spirit in this show. His gospel book, a French import, was about a hundred years old when Bernward commissioned a new cover, with a Byzantine ivory plaque repurposed for the front, and Bernward's name in large rune-like letters on the back of the volume. But the encrustation of the precious text didn't stop there, as the large pink and blue cabochons were added after Bernward's death, perhaps to celebrate his canonization.

Gospel Book, cover ca. 1000.
Back of Gospel Book.

Although most of the treasures now on display at the Met are small items, a few large sizeable artifacts made the trip too, including the Baptismal Font featured at the beginning of this post. That this masterpiece of the foundry survived at all is miraculous, given that so many liturgical objects were victims of religious and political upheavals and were melted, smashed, bombed, burned, defaced or discarded.

Another survivor is the wood sculpture of Christ on the cross, in the image below.  Nevermind that it lacks its original paint and that the arms are 12th century oak replacements.  What remains is more than impressive. Christ's body and head are carved from a single piece of linden wood.  According to the Met's website, the slight twisting of the Christ's body - his knees point in one direction, his head in another - is unique in medieval representations of this time; the rotation, though subtle, gives an unexpected realism and poignancy to this figure.

Ringelheim Crucifix, ca. 1000, before 1022.

While the crucifix would have been a stationery object of devotion, many of the works in this show were made for personal or public use, including several croziers, or staffs, part of the regalia of bishop and abbot. Croziers are shaped like shepherd's crooks; the bishop or abbot is symbolically the shepherd of his flock.  According to the Met, the one in the image below shows God evicting Adam from the Garden of Eden.  The stem of the crozier features Eve, the apple and a snake; a curving tree branch forms the volute in which God is exiling Adam from the Garden.  It appears that God  is handing something to Adam - perhaps the clothes that God fashioned for Adam and Eve? 
 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them. - Genesis 3:21
Crozier of Abbot Erkanbald, before 1011.
Bishops with mitres and croziers, 1958. Source: http://theratzingerforum.yuku.com/sreply/61932/Papal-clothing-and-liturgical-practices#.UmcRhyQrNn4

Other items were designed to be "campaign furniture" for ecclesiastics, including the portable altars used for celebrating the Eucharist outside of a church.  Bread and wine would have been placed on the surface.  A particularly colorful example is shown below; I think it represents the six apostles and assume the remaining six are on the other side.  Would that museums would utlilize technology, or even mirrors, to show more sides of objects on display.

Portable altar, early 12th century.

In the same case as this altar are displayed three circular liturgical fans, along with candlesticks, more portable altars and a reliquary. Liturgical fans were used in processions and to fan the altar; these look too heavy for actual use and stood decoratively behind the altar in Hildesheim Cathedral for centuries.

Three liturgical fans, and other objects, from Hildesheim.

Below is a snapshot of celebrants holding liturgical fans to either side of an icon.

Source: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2007/05/common-liturgical-roots-found-in-oddest.html#.UmcT5yQrNn4
Liturgical fan, 1130-50, copper alloy, rock crystal, ancient intaglios.

Liturgical fan, 1130 - 50.

The openwork foliate patterns of the fans are beautiful, and cast intriguing shadows. In the cathedral interior, foggy with incense, the rock crystal would have gleamed like an earth-bound star.

Left: Arm reliquary, 1130-40. Right: Arm reliquary of St. Bernward. ca. 1194.

Whatever the medium, the medieval artists have cleared expended much effort in the depiction of fabric and costume. The above reliquaries, of wood overlaid with sheet gold, were designed to contain and protect precious pieces of sanctified materials or saints' body parts.  The left reliquary was designed to hold the arm of Maurice, a saint with a military background; his snug-fitting tunic sleeve rises out of a shield and is shown slightly scrunched up.  The sensitively modelled fingers may have held another object at one time.  The arm reliquary in the right side of the image, in contrast, mimics the flowing ornamented sleeve of an ecclesiastical robe, and the fingers point heavenward. The gesture is conventional, but nevertheless an important reminder of the goal of the consumers of this art - a place in heaven and the reward of eternal life.

In addition to metal workshops, Hildesheim supported busy scriptoria producing illuminated books. Bernward commissioned several books from monk Guntbald, including the Gospels shown below.

Guntbald Gospels, 1011 AD.
Gospel Lectionary and Collectar, monastery of Reichenau, c. 1010-30 AD.

I love the depiction of David with his harp, surrounded by other musicians, in the image above, from the scriptorium at Reichenau, a monastery near Hildesheim. They will "play us out."