Art from a Time When Seeing Was Believing

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

For most of us, most of the time, our encounters with works of art come closer to genuflection than contemplation. As we rush by the works in our museums, we're more like Catholics crossing themselves by the altar than art historians working toward tenure.

That may be close to literally true: our modern love of art has roots in how we once dealt with precious relics and magic talismans.

The gem-studded crosses, golden caskets, and finely carved ivories that got the modern art world started, back in the Middle Ages, were about as beautiful as anything could be. But most of them also had more important, vitally practical functions: they cured illnesses, won battles, protected infants, and helped farmers bring in crops. Good looks and precious materials were symbols of those works' amazing functionality rather than their central point. (Is this what's going on today with Apple's immaculately crafted computers?)

A landmark new exhibition called Treasure of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, presents just those kinds of magically gorgeous objects. It is truly a "treasure" show, chock-full of gold and gems. It also takes us back to an age where the respect we had for art could verge on awe, even terror.

The true "working parts" of the golden objects at the Walters are hidden deep inside them: all these artifacts either contained actual remnants of the bodies of Christianity's holiest figures, or held lesser objects--oil, bits of cloth, or even instruments of torture--that had come in contact with the figures or their relics.

Two carved and painted busts of beautiful young girls, dressed and coiffed for a holiday Sunday near Brussels in the 1520s, conceal chunks of skull said to have come from martyred Christian virgins. …