I went to see Treasures of Heaven at the Cleveland Museum of Art yesterday, I had to move quickly, as the exhibit is closing today. It was very well done-and my minor in undergrad was Medieval and Roman History, so it was a pleasure to re-visit the stuff.
When I go to an exhibit such as this one, I play the Bryson game. As Bill Bryson put it in his Notes from a Small Island:
I play a game…it helps me focus. The for being such a splendid fellow, the authorities will allow me to take one thing from an exhibit for my very own. The only catch is I must select it on the basis of esthetics, and not mere value.
For me, I selected this ninth-century ivory pyxis with the carvings of St. Menas. It was obviously made from an elephant tusk, and I really liked the carvings. I also just happen to like carved ivory, there is something about it, perhaps the grain, but it has a much finer character than wood. I like it.
I also liked the head of one of the companions of St. Ursula, there was some spectacular specimens of rock crystal. Two things struck me. One was the little display of pilgrimage badges, that reminded me strongly of the little souvenir teaspoons or shot glasses that you see in tourist traps and in turnpike service plaza shops. But instead of Philadelphia (or Flint Ridge) they were of a saint or shrine. People really haven’t changed much in a thousand years.
The other thing that struck me as strange was the enshrinement and exhibit of. well, the bits of saints and martyrs. There was a tooth of Mary Magdalene (supposedly) in a piece of rock crystal. Arm bones of saints and parts of the true cross. This is where my XXI century logic and knowledge trip me up. I know that the gospels were written decades after the events they describe. That no one at the time would think of saving a bit of the true cross, or would even been allowed to. The tooth of Mary Magdalene was a human tooth, sure. But more likely than not it was a tooth the artists had lying around. The objects and artistry were gorgeous, but I found myself unable to fully suspend my disbelief.