Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe


of an Exhibition

by Jennifer Souers Chevraux

Published on November 09, 2010

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    I majored in Anthropology in college mainly because I was inspired by the swashbuckling adventures of Hollywood archaeologists like Indiana Jones, who circled the globe in search of powerful treasures to add his museum’s collection. I double-majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies because I was inexorably drawn to the beauty and strangeness of the art and architecture of those ages. What I did not know when I began studying archaeology was that most of it is about moving dirt from one place to another in an effort to gain insight into cultures that have long since passed from our collective memory, and it rarely involves treasure. Likewise, when I entered my medieval art history studies I did not yet understand that for a largely illiterate population living in a dark and painful world, art was more than mere decoration, it was a pictured pathway to the divine.

    Last month The Cleveland Museum of Art opened “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe.” This exhibition gives us a precious glimpse of a culture we have left behind, and a sense of the mystery that was once at the center of a powerful Christian faith. Treasures of Heaven features dazzling gold, silver, and jewel-encrusted objects from some of the finest museum collections in the United States and Europe, supplemented by impressive marble altarpieces, and delicate parchment manuscripts depicting the lives of the saints. Still, there is something dark hiding beneath the shiny surface.

    The richly toned galleries, flow from one room to the next through graceful arches, and interpretive texts appear on gothic crest-like panels crowned with delicate rosettes. These were lovely touches, but they are not what moved me. What was it then? What made me stop and contemplate the fate of those pilgrims who traveled on foot hundreds of miles, or even farther, to behold these precious objects? It was the bones.

    Throughout these serene and sterile museum spaces were beautiful vessels discretely containing, or audaciously framing the grisly remains of human beings. You may argue that these relics were (are?) not the remains of just anyone, but those of venerated saints. Still it is not saintliness, but basic human curiosity that drives the visitor to get a closer look at the pieces of dead people in the room. The same desire compelling rubber-neckers to slow down and ogle an accident on the other side of the highway, finds me staring quizzically at an ancient tooth encased in rock crystal, my mind racing with child-like questions.

    How could someone wrench that tooth from a dearly departed saint’s mouth? Is it really from John the Baptist, or just some poor bell-ringer who slipped on the belfry stairs? How big was the “True Cross” if bits and pieces of it were sprinkled throughout Europe in countless reliquaries and amulets? So many silent questions voiced by my inner child. One nagging thought escaped in an uncontrollable shudder while viewing an assemblage of silk-wrapped relics. How terrible must life have been in this pre-scientific age for people to go to such great, gory lengths to capture and touch the divine?

    The Anthropologist in me felt something else as I toured the galleries today, something our increasingly xenophobic world could use a little more of, a sense of universality, of oneness. It was in the golden faces of saints, masks of the dead, which in many ways parallel artifacts from the great Mesoamerican civilizations. It resonated in the perpetuation of sacred remains for healing and protection. The richly illuminated texts preserving histories of the faithful shared traits with Mayan codices, Egyptian papyri, Islamic, Hebrew, and Hindu manuscripts. I remember my schoolgirl revulsion upon learning that many prehistoric people buried their dead ancestors beneath the floors of their homes, keeping them close for protection. Other cultures carried the dead around in bundles, or marched their remains out for feasts and festivals. Out of context these practices seemed ghoulish and bizarre. In Treasures of Heaven we see the roots of our modern culture laid plain as gloriously and wondrously, if not uniquely, bizarre.

    Often in our modern culture, pundits attempt to reduce complex issues to 15-second sound bites. Things are parsed out for us as black or white, left or right, ours or theirs, one or the other. In this exhibit art history has its rebuttal. We are like them, and they are us. These medieval traditions and treasures demonstrate our forbears’ belief in the mysteries of faith and their pursuit of magical solutions to physical problems and daily strife.

    A banner adjacent to the entry of the last gallery presents a grayed image of a once bright illumination, toned-down from its full vibrancy it suggests the mystery is fading. The reliquaries and bones of the saints are followed in the final gallery by Martin Luther’s sermons declaring the heretical theater of the veneration of these relics. As the Age of Enlightenment approached, the provenance and religious role of relics was questioned by reformers like Luther and Erasmus, asking the same skeptical questions I did in the previous galleries.

    Here we encounter the essence and realities of faith. Even in this age of cutting-edge science, diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and others cause persistent pain, suffering, and loss. The reality of our own mortality forces rational minds to confront the desire for a magical talisman that can drive the demons away and make it all better. People today look for healing in the hands of envangelical ministers and buy snake oil from late-night infomercials. We are skeptical, but we keep the faith, just in case. In Treasures of Heaven we come face to face with ourselves and discover we are not so different from the pilgrims, or the pagans.

    An esteemed exhibit designer once told me that authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, going on to suggest that visitors do not care if an object is real, as long as it is cool. The impressive exhibition Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art flies in the face of this logic. For centuries people have journeyed great distances to see these objects, and I think in this case they are worth the trip.

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