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Art Mafia: Reliquaries in Cleveland

Cleveland Museum of Art chief curator C. Griffith Mann ’91 took the lead on curating his institution’s latest big show. Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, an exhibition created in partnership with the British Museum and Baltimore’s Walters Museum of Art was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal’s list of “Don’t Miss” exhibits and looks very intriguing.

Whereas a museum of history or religion might emphasize the relics themselves (see, for example, the collection of “sacred relics of the Muslim World” at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, including Mohammad’s cloak, tooth, a hair of his beard, the staff of Moses, and Abraham’s wooden drinking bowl), the CMA is an art museum and so this show exhibits the reliquaries which displayed the relics in medieval times. Steven Litt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer explains:

In an age before DNA testing, art itself had to testify to the authenticity of the remains of saints or fragments of the true cross. In a more prosaic sense, artists had to make impressive containers for small bits of sacred material that, in and of themselves, were not much to look at.

The responses to this problem ranged from the simple stone caskets of the Roman era to elaborate Gothic monstrances in which filigreed arches and steeples hold orbs of polished rock crystal containing splinters of bone or wood.

Many of the works on display have never before been displayed outside private collections or their home countries. The highlights include an 18-inch-tall ornate gold and glass housing for the tooth of St. John the Baptist; an iron, silver and copper bell on display supposedly cast by St. Cuilean of Ireland; a silver reliquary that usually houses the arm of St. George (pictured above — although the arm itself remains safely ensconced at St. Mark’s in Venice), and religious manuscripts with thought and speech bubbles that prefigure comic books.

In  a recent interview, Mann emphasized the history symbolized by the objects on display:

The relics and reliquaries showcased here provide evidence of religious objects traveling across tremendous distances and people making pilgrimages across the Mediterranean to walk in the footsteps of important figures from sacred history . . . “The medieval devotion to relics gave birth to new forms of monumental architecture, supported extensive pilgrimage networks and prompted significant development in the visual arts.

This Saturday, 11/13 at 10 a.m., Cleveland-area Ephs will have an opportunity to hear more of Mann’s thoughts as he leads a gallery talk on the exhibition; co-curator Holger Klein of Columbia University gets his turn on Saturday, December 11. The show runs through January 17.