December 27, 2013

Medieval Magic at the Met

With the presents now unwrapped and stores featuring drastic mark-downs on unsold merchandise, many New Yorker's thoughts have raced from Christmas to the New Year with barely a glance at the remains of the now-outdated decorations.  But for others, Christmastide actually began on December 24th and continues until Epiphany on January 6th when the Magi reached the manger in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In the spirit of the Christmas season that extends beyond the "Big Day", I visited a special loan exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While not strictly a Yule-themed show, the nature of the objects on display made it very appropriate for holiday visitors.  "Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim" is a very manageable selection of about fifty exquisite church furnishings from the Hildesheim Cathedral in Northern Germany that have been sent out on tour while the cathedral is being renovated.

I had actually visited the small city of Hildesheim as a teenager and again about ten years ago and well remember the massive bronze doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments that are the signature element of Dom St. Maria (St Mary's Cathedral).  Unfortunately these doors are far too big to travel, but the bishop who commissioned them in 1001, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (960-1022), was also responsible for many other magnificent pieces that survive to this day and are part of this current exhibition in New York.

You don't have to be a devout Christian to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of these objects.  Take, for example, the large gold and jewel encrusted Reliquary Cross on the left that purportedly holds a fragment of the True Cross in the center.  Or one of the three liturgical fans, a portion of which can be seen in the museum's announcement above, that again demonstrates the wealth of the region and the skill of the artisans who worked there.  Other examples include beautiful illuminated manuscripts, delicately carved ivory croziers that topped the Bishops' staffs and the so-called Golden Madonna, a stunning statue of the Virgin and Child resplendent in jewels and one of the very earliest three-dimensional sculptures in medieval Europe.

While little Hildesheim is far from the tourist beat, it is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and boasts one of the finest and densest concentrations of medieval ecclesiastical art anywhere .  While today we think of Rome as the capital of such treasures, a thousand years ago it was in fact Hildesheim that claimed this title - and they have protected their riches through reformation, secularization, wars and the ravages of time.

These magnificent objects are a small portion of what Hildesheim has to offer, and it was a unique privilege to to be able to view them here in North America.  Though technically not Christmas decorations, they certainly invoke a special feeling that appeals to observers at this time of year.  And the location of the exhibition, adjacent to the Met's magnificent Neapolitan Christmas tree, makes the parallels even more evident.

During this special season, and with the new year just days away, may I again wish my readers all the very best at Christmas and invite you to join me in 2014 for another year of art and adventure.  Happy Holidays to all!!

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