Treasures for the Glory of God and Kings ; Medieval Art from Northern Germany Travels to the Met

Article excerpt

Hildesheim, in Germany, houses one of the richest and densest concentrations of 11th-century European religious art anywhere. The medieval treasures are now on display at the Met.

Smack in the middle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there's a nugget of compressed light called "Medieval Treasures From Hildesheim." Visually, the show is eminently graspable: a one-room cluster of 50 objects, many jewel-encrusted or covered in gold. In other ways, the art is almost beyond reach, being about the power politics of spirituality in a distant age, a subject that today's drive-by museumgoer would seem to know little, or care little, about.

A millennium ago, Hildesheim, in northern Germany, was one of the ecclesiastical centers of Western Europe. Under the patronage of Ottonian emperors, who ruled from A.D. 919 to 1014, it was a city of churches, the outstanding one being its grand cathedral, packed with art advertising the glory of God and kings. And because, for both, only the best would do, Hildesheim developed a top-class art industry. Its metal-casting workshops were superbly innovative; illuminated books poured from its scriptoria.

Today, its churches and museums still preserve one of the richest and densest concentrations of 11th-century European religious art anywhere. And the Met show is pure cream skimmed off the top.

That the art in it has survived at all is some kind of miracle. Many of these objects were made as much for active use as for contemplation. Large-scale sculptures were on constant public display in churches, being touched and kissed. Smaller ones traveled the streets in processions. Gospel books were thumbed-through during services; liturgical vessels were moved about: carried, cleaned, dropped, repaired.

And, of course, history kept happening. Power changed hands, and, with it, control over churches and treasures. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation put Roman Catholic art under threat. Enforced secularization in the 19th century also took a toll. Toward the end of World War II, old Hildesheim was leveled by bombs. A renovation of the rebuilt cathedral has supplied the pretext for sending its art to the Met.

Although almost none of the work can be attributed to individual artists, the name of one man hovers in the air, that of Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim from A.D. 993 to 1022. Of noble Saxon lineage, he was more than a high-ranking cleric. He was a cosmopolitan traveler, a court fixture, a cultural impresario, a serial self- promoter and, eventually, a saint. He was also one of the great shaping art patrons of his day, and possibly an artist himself.

His major architectural project in Hildesheim was the Benedictine church of St. Michael, for which he famously commissioned a set of immense bronze doors, each covered with narrative reliefs. The doors didn't make it to New York, but at least two sculptures, monumental in feeling and historically associated with Bernward's name, did.

One is the so-called Golden Madonna, a statue of the Virgin and Child carved from linden wood overlaid with sheets of hammered gold. Although both its figures are headless now, with their light- glancing surfaces studded with gemstones, they are magnetically opulent and must once have been even more so. Church records report that in the 15th century, the sculpture was half-buried in piles of brooches, rings and necklaces, left as offerings.

More-is-more was the modus operandi of medieval aesthetics, and the show has textbook examples, beginning with a Gospel owned by Bernward. The book was already nearly a century old when he acquired it, but he freshened it up and made it his own by adding a new cover, with a Byzantine ivory plaque affixed to the front and his own initials splashed across the back. After his death, and maybe to celebrate his canonization, the cover was further adorned with robin's-egg-size crystals and miniature paintings. …


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