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A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe

Curator’s Statement

The exhibition looks at how objects from late medieval Europe stirred the senses. During this period two important shifts occurred: the relative secularization of society and the increasing humanization of religion. Fast-paced urban growth, expanding lay literacy, the reassessment of gender roles, religious reforms, and violent political upheavals challenged established hierarchies and contributed to the slow disintegration of the old feudal orders. A new spirit emerged that prompted the men and women of this age to take as keen an interest in the certainties of life as in the uncertainties of the afterlife. The art of this period reflects these changes and shows an increasing interest in human experience, the enjoyment of nature, and the pursuit of pleasure.

Staring in the 13th century, the Aristotelian revolution prompted a reappraisal of sensation as a conduit to knowledge. As a result, alongside the theoretical and the symbolic, the arts of this period valued the description, the perception, and the feeling of ordinary life. Medieval objects were made to speak to all the senses. These objects functioned in a rich sensory world that was often integral to their apprehension. They were not only seen, but were also, and at the same time, touched, smelled, tasted, and heard.

The late medieval period was a time when appearances mattered, the staging of ritual was important, and the nature of things was defined by people’s experience of them. Refined sensibility, sober demeanor, and good looks were the attributes of noble kings and just rulers, as well as the mark of distinction of bishops and monks. Sinful rulers were thought to exude the stench of rotten flesh, and dead saints, the smell of roses. Blindness was considered not only a physical ailment but also a moral affliction. A fragrant, enclosed garden served as the symbol of the Virgin Mary and equally as the privileged site of gallant encounters. These examples attest to the multiplicity of emotional responses triggered by sensation and point to an awareness of sensation and sensuous pleasures directed not exclusively toward spiritual enlightenment.

Sensory stimulation played a key role in both courtly and religious ritual. The exhibition will display the art that contributed to these environments, as well as those objects that decorated seigniorial halls and princely tables. Banquets were the prime site of communal interaction, where leadership was established in the fulfillment of the senses. The accouterments of the table and the décor of the dining hall were designed to orchestrate precise and intense reactions. Precious vessels were prominently displayed on sideboards. Their gleaming presence symbolized magnanimity and splendor, the two necessary virtues of a ruler. The association of these vessels with delicious foods and fine wines made the display of princely virtues all the more meaningful, since food was understood to influence the body’s physical composition, affecting the moral and spiritual state of the eater.

The Tacuinum Sanitatis, an early 15th-century compilation of dietary instructions, maintains that one of the six necessities for the preservation of health is the regulation of such moods and mental states as joy, anxiety, anger, and fear, which could be achieved through the right combination of different foods. Indeed, people were thought to be a reflection of what they consumed and how they consumed it. Gilded bread and gold sauces were offered at the banquets of rulers in order to transfer the incorruptibility of the metal to the body of the eater.

The cuisine of banquets was one of metamorphosis and wonderment. Recipes called for the grating, grinding, and pounding of ingredients so that food could be reassembled in fanciful shapes. Diners were offered “unicorns” made of calf cooked in its skin with an attached silver horn. Numerous recipes from the period teach how to reinstate the feathers and beak of a peacock after it had been roasted. The transformation of a cooked meal into a live creature was epitomized by the trick of serving a lidded bread basket containing live birds that would fly away as soon as the lid was opened. The magnificence of medieval courtly cuisine competed with the entertainment planned to accompany meals. Chronicles and poems record the memory of these extravagant events, when entertainment—be it music, dancing, or reading aloud—was always part of the meal.

People’s experience of religion, too, was defined by rich sensory experiences. In churches, during the liturgy, the scent of incense, the sound of plainchant, and the flickering of candles created an environment conducive to meditation and spiritual introspection. To experience mystical unity with God, Christians were encouraged to exercise their bodily senses so as to trigger spiritual sensation. The recitation of long cycle of prayers was supposed to elicit a sweet taste in the mouth—a sign of divine communion. Objects used for private devotion, such as prayer beads, books of hours, and devotional pictures, play on these ideas and contain sensory prompts of various nature. Prayer beads could be aromatized with different fragrances, while gruesome pictures of the five wounds of Christ reminded the devotee of Christ’s pain and suffering during the Passion. Faithful were encouraged to relive Christ’s Passion, feel his pain and share in Mary’s sorrows. Religious art served that purpose by treating the senses as gateways to the soul.

Martina Bagnoli, exhibition curator

Martina Bagnoli served in several capacities during her tenure at the Walters (2003-2015), including, most recently, as the Andrew W. E. Mellon Curator of Medieval Art. While at the Walters, she organized the exhibitions Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (2010), Prayers in Code: Renaissance French Books of Hours (2009) and The Special Dead: A Medieval Reliquary Revealed (2008). She was adjunct associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she taught medieval art, and was the author of Prayers in Code: Books of Hours from Renaissance France (2009) and coeditor of Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe (2010).

In 2015 Dr. Bagnoli was appointed executive director of the Gallerie Estensi in Modena, Italy.