Art From a Time When Seeing Was Believing

From left: Reliquary Bust of St. Balbina South Netherlandish; Reliquary with the Man of Sorrows; and Reliquary Bust of St. Baudime. From left: Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Courtesy of Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Courtesy of Francis Debaisieux

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 Treasures 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. Each bust has a discreet trap door on top to reveal its sacred bone. The Walters is keeping them closed.

Several ornately gilt caskets and crosses contain fragments of the True Cross, which Christ was believed to have died on, while one of several rock-crystal vessels in the show still contains the “Tooth of John the Baptist,” as its inscription informs us. (The gold casings for these relics also functioned as cash reserves for their owners, to be melted down in tough times. This is one of several fascinating facts in an essay by co-curator Martina Bagnoli, from the show’s gorgeous and comprehensive catalog.)

Seeing these objects in a modern exhibition, you realize they sit at the top of our museums’ family tree. The art collecting that went on to become a hobby for the rich and powerful, such as the Walters’s founder, had its roots in the equally eager relic collecting of earlier times. By 1520, Prince Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, had amassed 19,013 precious relics in his collection.

At the tail end of the Middle Ages, churches and chapels were crowded with stunning objects of virtue, and people flocked to them—to pray, of course, but also for the sheer wonder of it all. One object at the Walters is a fabulous, yard-long “Griffin’s Claw” said to have come from a griffin companion of Saint Cuthbert of England. (Spoiler alert: it’s actually a mountain-goat horn.) As Europe secularized, such objects migrated to the “cabinets of wonder” of the wealthy, which in turn begat our modern museums, which function more like wondrous, relic-filled halls than we tend to acknowledge. After something like 2 million years of living from the artifacts we make, humans may be hard-wired to show them respect.