Baltimore—The Walters Art Museum will host an exhibition offering visitors a glimpse into the Middle Ages, a time when art mediated between heaven and earth and wondrous objects of gold, silver and precious gems filled churches and monastic treasuries. Relics, the physical remains of holy people and objects associated with these individuals, play a central role in a number of religions and cultures and were especially important to the development of Christianity as it emerged in the Late Roman world as a powerful new religion. On view at the Walters Feb. 13–May 15, 2011,Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe is the first exhibition in the United States to focus on the history of relics and reliquaries—the special containers to display the holy remains of Christian saints and martyrs. The exhibition is organized by the Walters Art Museum in partnership with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the British Museum.
Reliquaries proclaimed the special status of their sacred contents to worshipers and pilgrims, and for this reason, were often objects of artistic innovation, expressions of civic and religious identity, and focal points of ritual action. This exhibition will feature 133 metalworks, sculptures, paintings and illuminated manuscripts from Late Antiquity through the Reformation and beyond. It will explore the emergence and transformation of several key types of reliquary, moving from an age in which saintly remains were enshrined within closed containers to an era in which relics were increasingly presented directly to worshipers.
Many of the reliquaries in the exhibition have never before been seen outside of their home countries. Objects are drawn from celebrated public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, and also from important church treasuries. In addition to the three organizing museums, world-renowned institutions, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art, are lending works to the exhibition. Nine works are traveling from the Vatican collections, including three reliquaries that were once housed in the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies, the private relic chapel of the Pope.
Visitors will witness the transformation of reliquaries from simple containers for the earthly remains of Christian holy men and women to lavishly decorated objects of personal and communal devotion.
“As early as the second century AD, the relics of Christian saints—including their bones, ashes and other bodily remains—were thought to be more valuable than the most precious gemstones. They were believed to be a conduit for the power of the saints and to provide a direct link between the living faithful and God,” said Martina Bagnoli, Robert and Nancy Hall associate curator of medieval art and exhibition co-curator. “These remains were treated with reverence and often enshrined in containers that used luxurious and precious materials to proclaim the relics’ importance.”
The medieval devotion to relics gave birth to new forms of architecture and prompted significant developments in the visual arts. The reliquaries showcased in Treasures of Heaven provide evidence of religious objects traveling across tremendous distances and of people making pilgrimages across the Mediterranean to walk in the footsteps of important figures from sacred history. Powerful in inspiring religious devotion among believers, reliquaries became cutting-edge works of art that combined innovative techniques with beautiful design.
“Those who come to the exhibition thinking that the Middle Ages are only a period of darkness will be surprised,” said Martina Bagnoli.
Highlights of Treasures of Heaven include:
- Reliquary Bust of St. Baudime, c. 1180-1200,Parish Church of Saint-Nectaire, Puy-le-Dôme
- This nearly life-sized bust is one of the earliest surviving objects of its kind and travels outside of France for the first time.
- Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude, c. 1045, Cleveland Museum of Art
- This work is from the Guelph Treasure, one of the most important church treasuries to have survived from medieval Germany.
- Head Reliquary of St. Eustace, c. 1200, British Museum
- This head-shaped reliquary contained fragments of the skull of the Roman military leader Saint Eustace.
Other media—including digital tools and an audio tour—will provide audiences with context for the way in which relics and reliquaries would have been encountered in the medieval period. Although the objects in the exhibition primarily cover the time period from Late Antiquity until the Reformation, connections made to the living traditions of Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches, as well as to a fascination with souvenirs and mementos in contemporary secular society, demonstrate their legacy.
This project received important early support through planning grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Magnanimous gifts from Paul Ruddock and an anonymous benefactor made the catalogue possible. We acknowledge with gratitude the support of Marilyn and George Pedersen and the Sheridan Foundation which, together with additional implementation funds from the Kress Foundation, a Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made the exhibition possible. Additional support is provided by an anonymous donor, Ellen and Ed Bernard, Ann K. Clapp, Mary Jo and Ted Wiese, Stanley Mazaroff and Nancy L. Dorman, and the Associated Sulpicians of the United States.
Maryland Institute College of Art
Relics and Reliquaries: Reconsidered will be an exhibition in the Walters’ Manuscript Gallery, Feb. 26–May 22, 2011, and at the Current Space Gallery, Feb. 25–April 1, 2011, created by Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) students studying relics and reliquaries in a set of interdisciplinary sculpture and art history courses. The work will be inspired by and explore themes put forth by artisans in the material construction of sacred objects from the Walters’ Treasures of Heaven exhibition. Eleven emerging MICA artists will mine the cross-cultural and historic conceptions of what a reliquary is or can be.
The Johns Hopkins University
Students from the Program in Museums and Society at The Johns Hopkins University are working with Martina Bagnoli to create an audio tour for the exhibition. The students will select works of art from the exhibition and prepare brief narratives to help visitors place these objects in context and gain a fuller appreciation of how reliquaries were experienced by medieval viewers.
A Walters Pilgrimage
In conjunction with Treasures of Heaven, the Walters will create a free self-guided tour entitled A Walters Pilgrimage. Based on the model of a medieval pilgrim’s journey from sacred site to sacred site, this tour will lead a visiting “pilgrim” through the galleries to discover works of art that engage with Treasures of Heaven themes. From Egyptian mummies to Asian pagodas, the selection of objects brings the wide ranging traditions of relic worship and reliquary decoration into focus.
This exhibition tour began in Cleveland where it ran from Oct. 17, 2010–Jan. 17, 2011. The exhibition will be on view at the Walters from Feb. 13–May 15, 2011, and then travel to the British Museum in London from June 23–Oct. 9, 2011.
A joint publication of the Walters Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the British Museum, the 280-page illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition comprises ten essays and detailed catalogue entries covering 140 objects. The book was edited by Martina Bagnoli, Holger Klein, associate professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, Griffith Mann, chief curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and James Robinson, curator of late medieval Europe at the British Museum, with contributions from leading experts in medieval art and religion. The hard cover edition, distributed in North America by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, is $65, and the soft cover edition (available at the venues and through the respective museum stores) is $39.95. A United Kingdom edition of the book will be published by the British Museum Press and the trade edition distributed outside of North America by Thames & Hudson.
Museum hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
The Walters Art Museum
The Walters Art Museum is located in downtown Baltimore’s historic Mount Vernon Cultural District at North Charles and Centre streets and is one of only a few museums worldwide to present a comprehensive history of art from the third millennium B.C. to the early 20th century. Collection highlights include Egyptian mummies, Renaissance suits of armor, Fabergé eggs, Art Nouveau jewelry and old master paintings. Among its thousands of treasures, the Walters holds the finest collection of ivories, jewelry, enamels and bronzes in America and a spectacular reserve of illuminated manuscripts and rare books. The Walters’ Egyptian, Greek and Roman, Byzantine, Ethiopian and western medieval art collections are among the best in the nation, as are the museum’s holdings of Renaissance and Asian art. Every major trend in French painting during the 19th century is represented by one or more works in the Walters’ collection.