The Crippled and Sick Cured at the Tomb of Saint Nicholas,
1425. Gentile da Fabriano. Image courtesy of the Board
of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
This weekend The Cleveland Museum of Art opens Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. This new exhibition gives us a precious glimpse of a culture we have left behind, and a sense of the mystery that was once at the center of a powerful Christian faith. Treasures of Heaven features dazzling gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted objects from some of the finest museum collections in the United States and Europe, supplemented by impressive marble altarpieces, and delicate parchment manuscripts depicting the lives of the saints. Still, there is something dark hiding beneath the shiny surface.
The richly toned galleries, flow from one room to the next through graceful arches, and interpretive texts appear on gothic crest-like panels crowned with delicate rosettes. These were lovely touches, but they are not what moved me. What was it then? What made me stop and contemplate the fate of those pilgrims who traveled on foot hundreds of miles, or even farther, to behold these precious objects? It was the bones.
Reliquary with Tooth of Saint John the Baptist,
1375-1400; 900s-1000s. Photograph by Robert
Hashimoto. Reproduction, courtesy of The Art
Institute of Chicago.
Throughout these serene and sterile museum spaces were beautiful vessels discretely containing, or audaciously framing the grisly remains of human beings. You may argue that these relics were (are?) not the remains of just anyone, but those of venerated saints. Still it is not saintliness, but basic human curiosity that drives the visitor to get a closer look at the pieces of dead people in the room. The same desire compelling rubber-neckers to slow down and ogle an accident on the other side of the highway, finds me staring quizzically at an ancient tooth encased in rock crystal, my mind racing with child-like questions.
How could someone wrench that tooth from a dearly departed saint's mouth? Is it really from John the Baptist, or just some poor bell-ringer who slipped on the belfry stairs? How big was the "True Cross" if bits and pieces of it were sprinkled throughout Europe in countless reliquaries and amulets? So many silent questions voiced by my inner child. One nagging thought escaped in an uncontrollable shudder while viewing an assemblage of silk-wrapped relics. How terrible must life have been in this pre-scientific age for people to go to such great, gory lengths to capture and touch the divine?
Panel-Shaped Reliquary of the
Museum of Art.
Often in our modern culture, pundits attempt to reduce complex issues to 15-second sound bites. Things are parsed out for us as black or white, left or right, ours or theirs, one or the other. In this exhibit art history has its rebuttal. We are like them, and they are us. These medieval traditions and treasures demonstrate our forbears' belief in the mysteries of faith and their pursuit of magical solutions to physical problems and daily strife.
Reliquary Head of Saint Eustace, c. 1210.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Here we encounter the essence and realities of faith. Even in this age of cutting-edge science, diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, and others cause persistent pain, suffering, and loss. The reality of our own mortality forces rational minds to confront the desire for a magical talisman that can drive the demons away and make it all better. People today look for healing in the hands of envangelical ministers and buy snake oil from late-night infomercials. We are skeptical, but we keep the faith, just in case. In Treasures of Heaven we come face to face with ourselves and discover we are not so different from the pilgrims, or the pagans.
An esteemed exhibit designer once told me that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, going on to suggest that visitors do not care if an object is real, as long as it is cool. The impressive exhibition Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art flies in the face of this logic. For centuries people have journeyed great distances to see these objects, and I think in this case they are worth the trip.