The Middle Ages in 50 Objects By Elina Gertsman & Barbara H. Rosenwein

50 obj.jpg

The Middle Ages in 50 Objects is not only a beautiful art history book, but also offers a great alternative learning route into the medieval period. Dr. Barbara H. Rosenwein, Professor Emerita at Loyola University, and Elina Gertsman, a professor of medieval art history at Case Western Reserve University, have carefully curated this stunning collection of medieval objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art. The selection not only highlights the skill of medieval artists and the function of such objects, but it also tell readers something about the importance of each piece, and its context within the medieval historical narrative.

The book is divided into four themes: The Holy and the Faithful, The Sinful and the Spectral, Daily Life and its Fictions, and Death and its Aftermath. Each section chronologically examines these four important aspects of medieval society through selected objects that reflect each theme.

In The Holy and the Faithful,the book answers how medieval people – who lived in a society that was dominated by religion – functioned within this structure, through relics, performance, pilgrimage, and devotional practices. The book criss-crosses the globe; from a marble statue of Jonah Cast Up, to a twelfth century leaf from the Qur’an, to a gilded alabaster altarpiece of Christ carrying the cross, each piece touches on the importance of religious material culture, be it Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.

The Sinful and the Spectral, explores the idea of religion once again, but flips it on its head. It looks at subversive figures that are meant to instill fear, and remind the viewer to be constantly vigilant against the ever present evils of demons, temptation, and vice. Devotional images, such as The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve altarpiece commissioned by an Italian friar, contrast two views of women. One depicts Eve, naked and overtly sexual, seduced by the snake entwined about her leg, against the image of Mary, modestly breastfeeding Christ; the role model in which medieval women hoped to redeem themselves for their role in The Fall. The article accompanying this piece then proceeds to discuss the ongoing political struggles occurring in Italy – turmoil that is reflected in this panel.

The third chapter, Daily Life and its Fictions constructs the medieval world for us by taking everyday objects and examining their relevance and deeper meanings. Each piece in this theme explores the more secular side of life, and the ways in which money, fashion, texts, and expensive objects were used to portray certain roles, convey emotions, and cement social expectations and hierarchies.

Death and its Aftermath, was by far (in my opinion) the most intriguing part of the book. This final section dealt with the medieval fascination with death, purgatory, the afterlife. From martyrdom, to Danse Macabre, from the Plague, to bizarre burial rituals, this chapter exposes the fears and beliefs medieval people had surrounding death. It seems that there was little to reassure the average person; as nearly every image carried a stark reminder of the fleeting aspect of life, and the ever present spectre of death lurking in the background. The book’s authors hammer this home with pieces such as the grim woodcut from Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death, The Pope, to the late fifteenth century painting, A Bridal Couple. This memento mori portrait in particular, reminds the viewer that while they are enjoying the bliss of young love, the flowers wilt and die at their feet, amidst a sinister and foreboding background. So that the young never forget about their eventual demise, another panel of the young couple depicts them as living corpses, rotting, covered with flies and serpents. Some of the best pieces in the book are in this chapter - beautiful, grotesque, and disquieting.

We interviewed authors Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein about their latest book, The Middle Ages in 50 Objects to find out what inspired their collaboration, why they chose these specific items, and what they mean to them.

1. Why did you select the Cleveland Museum of Art specifically for this project as opposed to other famous collections?

There are at least two reasons why we selected the CMA. Elina works with the collection in depth; many of her courses at Case Western Reserve University revolve around the CMA holdings, and her graduate students are introduced to researching and writing catalogue and exhibit descriptions using the items in the collection. But perhaps even more important, the CMA medieval collection is among the very best in the world, including not only materials from Europe but also from the Byzantine and Islamic worlds. This rare inclusiveness has been a long tradition at the CMA; it allowed us to encompass the three interlocked.

2. The four categories: The Holy and the Faithful, The Sinful and the Spectral, Daily Life and its Fictions, and Death and its Aftermath, were an innovative way to present these medieval objects. How did you come up with the idea of categorizing their stories within this framework?

We didn’t want to organize the book chronologically: that sort of thing is good for a textbook but not for a book that readers are invited to browse at their leisure and for their pleasure. Nor did we want to divide the book by cultural area--Europe, then Islam, then Byzantium, or some variation on that--because these cultures had too much in common and were too much in contact to warrant that sort of organization. The categories that we chose cut across all three cultures in telling and interesting ways. Above all, they allowed us to talk about the astonishing variety and richness of medieval material, spiritual, intellectual, political, and, yes, emotional life.

3. The book does an excellent job of teaching readers about the Middle Ages, not just by explaining what the object was used for, but by examining the particular period, and events that surrounded each piece. When you began the book, was this the initial intention, or was it an art book that accidentally morphed into a much broader educational scope?

From the start we knew that we wanted to contextualize each object as fully as limited space would allow. We worked on each object in relay, as it were, Elina starting with the object as a material and esthetic entity that was made with some purpose or some patron in mind. It was then Barbara’s turn to expand on these ideas, add the historical background and sketch the maps, which were designed to give the viewer a quick yet accurate idea of the location in which each object made sense. Then we both edited, changed, and commented on one another’s contribution until each essay became a unified whole written by the two of us together.

4. Every piece in this book has some deeper emotional connection. Dr. Rosenwein, you specialize in the study of emotion in history - were some of these choices deliberate on your part to convey not just the history, but the medieval emotional context behind each object to readers?

In our view, all of the objects had emotional resonance, and it gives us great joy to read that you, too, realize that, “every piece in this book has some deeper emotional connection.” Beautiful things, things that are used every day in worship, or for pleasure, or for protection, or attack in battle: all these objects have and had emotional meanings to their owners and others who came into contact with them. The place of material objects in the history of emotions is a “new frontier” with exceptionally promising vistas ahead.

5. Dr. Gertsman, from an art history perspective, art, especially in the later Middle Ages, seems rather focused on the fleeting aspect of life, and especially delights in reminding the viewer of their mortality. Was this macabre aspect always the case in medieval art, and when did this fixation with death shift?

We tend to see an uptick in death-related imagery, particularly in public spaces, between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. Skeletons and corpses gallop and ride victorious in the Triumph of Death; they dance with men and women of different social status to their death in the danse macabre; they confront insouciant youths and order them to shape up in the Encounter of the Three Dead and the Three Living. During the same time the clerical elites were commissioning tombs for themselves that featured their likeness in the form of a molding cadaver. All these were didactic images—startling, grim, fascinating, at times satirical—meant to inspire penitence, and many focused on doubling between the living and the dead/Death. We see this in the double portrait in Object 49, where the young lovers who appear on the front of the painting are transformed into worm-ridden corpses on the back.

6. What is your favorite piece, and which pieces held particular meaning?

Barbara: Every time I had to actually compose an essay about an object (even though I had initially “chosen” it), I felt like Sherlock Holmes must have felt when he got a new case. Of course, I had to ask slightly different questions from those of a detective: What can this mean? Why was it made? What makes it important not only for the past, but for our understanding of the past? My favorite pieces were those that led in many and unexpected directions. For example, Object 21, a miniature from a Mariegola, led us to research Venetian guilds, anti-Jewish stereotypes, ideals of poverty, and the realities of untold wealth. All that for just one object!

Elina: My students know that Christ and St John is among my all-time favorite pieces in the museum. It is an extraordinarily rich object, the one I can talk about for hours and hours, and the one closest to my research interests. But in terms of writing about the objects: I think my favorite, unexpectedly so, was the blood jasper calyx, Object 4. To work on it, I had to re-read Lucan’s Pharsalia, Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, Michael Psellus’s Chronographia, Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, and the Venerable Bede’s Explanation of the Apocalypse. It was great fun.

On a final note, this beautiful book is not just for art historians. It encourages all readers to engage the medieval world through its material culture. It is grounded in solid research, while also being accessible to new audiences.

The themes were set chronologically, with each piece showing the gradual shift in attitudes over this 1,000 year period, helping readers grasp how ideas and beliefs changed over time, and how they were shaped across cultures.

This is more than just a coffee table art book. It delves deeply into medieval social mores, religion, politics, and daily life. It explores a variety of cultures and spaces – both secular, and sacred, and provides insightful commentary on every item. Whether you’re an art lover or history buff, this book is the best of both worlds and a truly enjoyable read.

Happy Reading!

About the Authors

Barbara H. Rosenwein, Professor Emerita Loyola University, Chicago, is a medievalist and a recognized authority on the history of emotions. She is the author of Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (2006), Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600–1700 (2016), and has just completed (with co-author Riccardo Cristiani) What Is the History of Emotions? (2017). Her textbooks, A Short History of the Middle Ages (2009) and Reading the Middle Ages: Sources from Europe, Byzantium, and the Islamic World (2006) are currently going into new editions.

Elina Gertsman is Professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance (2010) and Worlds Within: Opening the Medieval Shrine Madonna (2015), and editor of several books, including Visualizing Medieval Performance: Perspectives, Histories, Contexts (2008) and Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History (2013). Most recently, with Stephen Fliegel, she published a catalogue that accompanies the focus exhibition they co-curated at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Myth and Mystique: Cleveland’s Gothic Table Fountain (2016).