Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe – now at the Walters Art Museum

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The Walters Art Museum has begun 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. Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, will be open until May 15th and 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.

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.

A 280-page illustrated catalogue, entitled Treasures of Heaven, accompanies the exhibition. It 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.

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.

Please see the Walters Art Museum website for more information about this exhibition

Source: Walters Art Museum

Sharan Newman