Danielle Trynoski explores the medieval exhibits at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional.
The National Archaeology Museum, located in Madrid, offers a summary of the cultural history of Spain in 4 floors. The extensive collection is showcased in comprehensive, thoughtful exhibits, and the 2013 renovation is evident in the carefully applied technology and inclusive interpretation methods. The lovely displays of objects, craftsmanship, and Spanish lifestyle set the MAN apart as an archaeology, rather than an art, museum by showing beautiful items that affected peoples’ daily lives, and reflected their beliefs and practices. The museum is set up to be chronological, with Prehistory at the ground floor, moving up through Roman, Medieval/Islamic, Age of Exploration, Industrial, and Modern eras. A gallery in the top floor explains the history of the museum and its collection. This transparency of the organization’s practice is a bold and modern decision and should be an example in the museum industry. Other components also set a high standard, like the tactile exhibits created for blind or visually impaired visitors to touch their way through the description of a process like creating a pottery vessel.
While the museum is a masterclass in modern exhibit design, let’s get on to the good (medieval) stuff!
After passing through a great hall of Roman statuary presiding over a noble court, the transition from the Roman galleries to the Late Antique/Early Medieval exhibits is marked with an explanatory video and a delightful mosaic of early medieval drinking pals.
The strong Roman presence in Spain is evident in the Roman techniques and style in the medieval objects. The (ahem) crown of the galleries are the Visigothic votive crowns, reconstructed and hanging to show off their full gem-encrusted glory. MAN’s collection contains numerous examples of this strange object, including the Guarrazar Hoard with Reccevinth’s crown, and the Torredonjimeno Hoard.
When created in the 6th and 7th centuries, they hung above church altars. They frequently incorporated older objects such as Roman jewels, intaglios, or Byzantine crosses. The individual object histories are just as fascinating as the objects themselves; some pieces of the Guarrazar and Torredonjimeno hoards were sold out of Spain in the 1800s and are still in international museums or are held in the royal treasury of Spain. To further complicate things, pieces of the hoards were “discovered missing” or stolen in 1921 and 1936. These pieces have never been recovered.
Discovered near the Guarrazar Hoard and displayed next to the votive crowns is an item which lacks the glitz and glitter, but is almost more interesting than the crowns: the grave slab of Presbyter Crispin from the 8th century. The simple piece of slate, measuring around six feet long, is completely covered by an early medieval Latin inscription. The inscription translates to: “Whoever reads the epitaph on this stone, take heed: consider the place and observe your surroundings. As a sacred minister, I chose to possess a sacred place. Sixty years I walked this earth; in death I commend myself to the protection of the saints, to be resurrected with them in due time when the consuming flame comes to set the earth ablaze. His life having run its course, Crispin, presbyter, sinner, rested here in the peace of Christ. Year of the era 731.” Grave slabs from this period are extremely rare, and the volume of text extant on this example is extraordinary. It provides information about craftsmanship, linguistics, local religious practices, and Crispin himself. It really is an example of the past speaking to us in the present.
A significant part of Spain’s cultural identity is marked by its history as a part of the medieval Islamic empire. This museum, documenting the country’s built and physical heritage, does a good job of showing the highlights of that heritage. The heavy influence of Islamic architecture is illustrated in a color-coded model of the Great Mosque of Córdoba showing how Romanesque, Byzantine, Visigothic, and Islamic styles co-exist in one structure. The model is a great way to reference a building that is integral to this part of Spain’s history and built heritage without having access to the actual building. Its position in the gallery, suspended over a large part of square footage, also profiled it as a major piece while still allowing for the display of other objects. Other notable pieces include pottery with decorative slips and glazing, carved ivory chests, and hanging lamps. All pieces in the exhibit are examples of highly skilled craftsmanship, and the unique character of design stood out among the Roman, Early Medieval, and High Medieval in the adjacent galleries.
Between the Islamic exhibit and the Medieval galleries are three rooms that literally made my mouth drop open in wonder. These three rooms were covered in wood. Not just planks or furniture or carved objects, but sculpted and painted functional pieces. The level of detail was minute and the paint was in impeccable condition, allowing visitors to see minute elements of foliage, fauna, and figurines. The exhibit designers at MAN know how to use their ceiling space, and here they display multiple intact sections of ceiling coffers, domes, and decorations all made of wonderful wood! I still can’t decide which component impressed me more, the carving or the painting. A section of altar stalls from the 14th century are across from Islamic joist supports, highlighting the refined techniques evident in both styles. My only critique is that one of the most impressive ceiling sections hangs right over another large display, making it impossible to stand under the ceiling section and study details in the center of it. I was so completely entranced by this piece that I don’t even remember what was blocking my access in the display beneath it, but I wanted to examine the ceiling in closer detail. Perhaps some table-top mirrors would help visitors get closer to these magnificent pieces? In the adjacent rooms, the ceilings are equally magnificent with intricate cut-out details and intact paint.
The Christian Kingdoms (8th-15th centuries) galleries are a medievalist’s delight. Objects from church, domestic, and industrial settings are all incorporated. An iron brazier was a particularly interesting domestic object. Items that were used on a regular basis rarely survive at all, let alone in complete form like this piece. This brazier was used to hold hot coals and help keep a room warm. The little dragon head finials on the corner uprights were nicely formed and were repeated on other metal items in the exhibit.
Painted wood crosses and figurines show the refined and talented nature of Spanish Catholic art. The vivid colors have survived in remarkable detail, and are shown in context with other related objects alongside an explanation of the role of the church in medieval communities. The 12th century Pillar of Lust was an entertaining object, with one particularly poor fellow stuck in a rather uncomfortable position for several centuries. Other figures featured women enjoying their own company and men being seduced by demons. 15th century statue Peter I of Castile shows the detailed craftsmanship practiced in medieval Spain. The minute carving of textiles, embroidery, chainmail, and bodily features such as hair and nails is extraordinary.
For information on the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, check out their website. Plan about three hours to explore the entire museum, or four to five if you’re like me and need to read every single English/Spanish label, watch every video with English subtitles, trace every comparative chronological map, and push every interactive button.
Danielle Trynoski is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for Medievalists.net – Click here to read more of her posts