By Jeffrey M. Hoffeld
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 28:4 (1969)
Introduction: While the biblical metaphor of beating swords into plowshares primarily expresses an antiwar sentiment, it also represents the ancient world’s conception of the mutability of material substance. The soul is unchangeable, but the objects of experience are permutable: metal can be heated, turned into a liquid, fashioned, cooled, and resolidified. This conception was inherited by medieval man, and his frequent disdain for the events and objects of the earthly world is a manifestation of his belief in the illusory nature of the tangible and his faith in the realness of the intangible. The Middle Ages often capitalized, especially in art, on the idea of the changeability of the substantial. The medieval artist often concerned himself with simulating precious materials with common ones, with changing the rigid and coarse into the plastic and delicate, and the reverse. Medieval art itself sometimes seems to be a form of alchemy. This can be seen clearly in The Art of the Medieval Blacksmith, an exhibition of ironwork that will open this month at The Cloisters.