Sunday, November 17, 2013

Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim

Under “Current Exhibitions” the Metropolitan lists 27 different exhibitions from all parts of the world.  No wonder visitors are intimidated and feel they cannot take it all in.
My simple advice is don’t try.  I am always encouraging those who ask, to plan out their visit and decide what might interest them.  A cousin of mine had an agreement with his wife that they would visit a museum in the morning and in the afternoon do something else, like visit the Statue of Liberty or go to the zoo.

I was faced with the same problem during our two-week visit to New York.   My first stop at the Met was to see Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, and that would have been sufficient.  It is small gem of an exhibition that, for me, put all else in the shade, though I did return to see more.

Tours of foreign and domestic art collections most often happen when restoration of an institution is taking place.  Over a decade ago when the concept was relatively new my wife suggested to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, after they had been closed for more than a decade, that they might wish to exhibit part of their collection in the New World (Portland, Oregon).  For them it was a novel idea, but they agreed.

Now a greater, or in any case much rarer, collection has gone out on loan, Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim, one of the oldest cities in northern Germany.  As often happens the legend of a miracle allowed for the building of a sacred place.  The story goes that the chaplain accompanying Louis the Pious (778-840) on a hunt stopped and hung a reliquary of the Virgin on a rosebush and forgot it there.  When it was found the next day it could not be removed. Bishop Altfried who reigned from 851-875 built the first Cathedral in Hildesheim consecrated in 872, at the site of the rosebush, which survives to this day.  Subsequent Bishops eagerly expanded the Cathedral until it was ready for Bishop Bernward (reign 933-1022), the greatest patron of the arts in the middle ages to make Medieval Hildesheim flourish.  The quantity and quality of the art were unrivaled for the time and Bernward’s commissions were extraordinary.  Being a member of the Saxon Nobility did not harm either.  He had connections everywhere.

I have learned during the 4 years that I have written Missives from the Art World that the images I use, amplify my Missives and, as they say, are worth at least a 1000 words  that you would not wish to read anyway!  Also, images used to illustrate catalogs are usually silhouetted hiding the scale and removing the work of art from our world.  I was allowed to use my own camera (iPhone 5S) to take pictures in the Hildesheim exhibition, and, unless otherwise mentioned, these are my own images.

When you walk into the Medieval Hall of the Met, behind the Christmas tree and before the Lehman wing you encounter the largest and most striking object in the exhibition.  It is actually separated from the exhibition itself with a gallery in between but this site is perfect in the Medieval gallery behind the gates of a Spanish church, that are part of the Met’s permanent installation.  It is a 6 foot high Baptismal Font in copper alloy in which you could easily lose a baby!  It dates from 1226 and was cast in Hildesheim for the Hildesheim Cathedral.  It is incredibly elaborate and complex including scenes from both the New and Old Testament.

After spending a long time gawking at this spectacular object I continued to the main site of the exhibition and the next object to gain my attention was the so called “Golden Madonna”.  It dates from 1022, making it one of the oldest three-dimensional Western European Medieval sculptures to survive.  The Virgin and Child are made of linden wood, covered with gold sheet.  In spite of it missing both heads, three  of the four hands, and many of its precious stones, it makes quite an impression.  One can see its importance through the folds and delicate filigree on the garments.  During the 13th century it was known to be on the high altar of the Eastern Apse of Hildesheim Cathedral.

When I saw this pair of candlesticks for the first time in illustration I thought that they were 6 plus feet tall and was frustrated when I could not find them in the exhibition.  Upon my return to the show my mistake became obvious because they are only 16 inches high with gilding and niello on an iron core.  As you can see from the illustration they are incredibly elaborate and the design would easily support a larger format.  The inscription along the bottom which is neither a profound nor liturgical pronouncement says, “Bishop  Berward  ordered his servant to cast these candlesticks in the first flowering of this art, not out of gold, not out of silver, and nevertheless as you discern here.”  The material that looks like silver has recently been analyzed as electrum, a combination of gold and silver.

Two other incredible pieces of goldsmiths’ work are the arm reliquary of Saint Bernward  (yes, formerly known as Bishop Bernward) of 1194 and the reliquary of Saint Oswald from the same period which still today contains his skull.  In the 13th century the latter was shown together with the Golden Madonna on the same high altar.  Here my photograph falls short of showing the incredible detail of the engraving of the piece but the portraiture is perfectly clear and if I ever meet Saint Oswald I shall surely recognize him!  While an arm reliquary is not that rare in medieval art I have never seen one this fine or elaborate.

What a show!  There is so much to learn about each piece and so much more to see in the exhibition including enamels, ivories and manuscript illuminations of the period.  The show is up until January 5, 2014 .


  1. Thank you for the tour and for your beautiful, engaging writing.

  2. I need info on a Bernward candle stick, how do I estimate age?