Hildesheim’s Medieval Splendor

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Twelfth-century Europe was a complex and varied culture of often overlapping religion, politics, and private life. This is reflected in the arts of the period, a high-water mark of imagination and craftsmanship. Like other cultures of deep and widely held faith, Medieval Europe – Christendom – created precious objects that, born of such high sentiments, were like prayers rendered in gold, silver, and precious stones.

Works of art delivered the Christian message by glorifying the Holy. Just as in the Torah, where God instructs the Jews to use “the purest gold” in the temple, the most precious materials were favored in the service of the Catholic Church. In his “De Consecratione,” the twelfth-century abbot of St-Denis, Abbot Suger, praised the working of gold and silver and precious stones to “conjoinest the material with the immaterial, the corporeal with the spiritual, the human with the Divine.”

Sparkling like King Solomon’s mines, “Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim” is the Metropolitan Museum’s dazzling new exhibit of church furnishings and treasures from Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. Consecrated in 872 and designated a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 1985 along with Saint Michael’s Church in Hildesheim, its collection of works made between the years 1000 and 1250 is among the very finest in the world.

Approximately fifty items, most of which have never been seen outside of Europe, are on display and include gospel books and illuminated manuscripts, intricate metalwork such as crosses, candlesticks, and bishop’s croziers, enamelwork, portable altars, and fantastic forms carved in ivory.

Saint Bernward (b.960-d.1022), bishop of Hildesheim and an arts patron of central importance, is presumed to have commissioned the elegant and powerful Ringelheim Crucifix which quietly presides, with arms outstretched, over the exhibit. Carved of linden wood and oak, and measuring over sixty-three inches in height, it is one of the very earliest surviving examples of three-dimensional medieval sculpture, the volumes of its form organized by simple, sophisticated lines and rhythms like those of illuminated manuscripts and lending to its sense of calm and dignity.

Reliquaries, receptacles which house venerated objects such as saint’s body parts or soil or other precious artifacts from a holy site, were venerated objects and are of special interest in medieval art, and the exhibit boasts seven of these.

The Reliquary of Saint Oswald, which houses the head of the seventh-century king of Northumbria, is a fantastic treasure box of gold, silver, cloisonné enamel, and precious stones, etched and illustrated with royal figures and decorative patterns, as a jewel-encrusted golden crown sparkles atop the saint’s stern expression.

Other reliquaries of unusual design on exhibit are in the shape of crosses, of a ball, and of arms raised in blessing, the beauty and pageantry of which would have seemed as the very Word of God spoken to the soul.

In contrast to the monumental scale of the Ringelheim Crucifix and the almost kaleidoscopic fantasia of metal- and stone-work is the Bernward Bible, the only Ottonian Bible to survive intact from the tenth and eleventh centuries. With elegant beauty and clarity, the quiet dignity of its serpentine lines are contrasted by lavish ornamental initials of gold, silver, blue, and red, intricate crests of brilliant color alongside the calm, patient curls of its calligraphic lines.

Other book arts on display include a Gospel Lectionary and Collectar, with illuminated pages depicting the Church’s five principal feast days and depicting the worship of the Lamb of God by four groups of clergy and nuns dressed in deep blues, pinks, whites, and rosy-purples, against a background emblazoned with gold leaf that flashes out like lightning from heaven.

Medieval Church Treasures from Hildesheim is on display from September 17 until January 5, 2014 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. metmuseum.org, 212-535-7710

More information about Robert Edward Bullock’s work can be found at bullockonline.com

The New York Sun

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