Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Treasures of Heaven

Missing Relic?
The Crown of Saint Stephen of Hungary

This weekend, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe (which closes this week, on Oct 9th). The exhibition has been very positively reviewed in the British and American press (it showed in the US earlier in the year). The sheer array and number of reliquaries on display is certainly impressive - if you like peering into display cases in a darkened hall with atmospheric 13C music playing in background, admiring the aesthetics of medieval goldsmithery, enamel, ivory-carving and wood polychrome, this is certainly an exhibition for you. On the whole, though, I wasn’t sure it amounted to much more than the sum of its parts – it felt a like an attempt to amass a huge collection of relics under one roof for its own sake, not unlike a modern museum version of the
relic-collecting medieval rulers featured in the show.

What particularly troubled me as a historian about this exhibition, however, was the ‘Medieval Europe’ claim in the title. The exhibition catalogue opens with a glossy but shocking map of ‘Medieval Europe’, a map which labels key places in Western Europe and the Byzantine world, leaving Catholic Eastern Europe totally blank, as if it were one big tract of uninhabited forest. It’s a map straight out of the Cold War. Were there no relics in medieval Budapest, Cracow or Vilna? What about Hungary’s most precious relic, the Crown of Saint Stephen, or the head of Poland’s Saint Stanislaw in its fabulous 1504 gold casket, or the celebrated 1388 ‘Elbląg’ diptych reliquary made for the Teutonic Knights in Prussia? The reliquaries on display in Treasures of Heaven come chiefly from the collections of the British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore – if those collections, for historic reasons, feature overwhelmingly west European and Byzantine artefacts, it’s important to explain that as such they are not necessarily representative of medieval Christianity as a whole. In the catalogue, the curators thank international colleagues and museums who had assisted the exhibition – institutions in France, Germany, Italy and (one South-East European example) Bulgaria. One wonders if curators in Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states simply didn’t pick up the phone, or whether they were not asked, because it’s still – in spite of all we know – ok to view medieval Europe through a twentieth-century geopolitical lens.

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