Getting Medieval

From Assisi, Fra Angelico's Saint Anthony of Padua. Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the eyes of many curators, museum exhibitions are just passing fancies. They can titillate the populace, earn some money, and, at times, provide intellectual amusement. But they are not nearly as important as spending the best years of your life listening to a widow discuss her toy poodle’s eating habits, should that widow happen to have a Cezanne hanging in her library. Cultivating the permanent collection is what truly counts at important museums. In different ways, the two handsome shows that have just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi” and “Mirror of the Medieval World,” are tributes to this form of “permanence,” intimating what such collections can mean to the contemporary imagination.

“Mirror” presents the results of twenty years of collecting by the Met’s Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters, under the guidance of retiring chairman William D. Wixom. The curators – led by Wixom and Peter Barnet – have gathered together nearly 300 of the department’s trophies. In the show, the curators distinguish between two forms of desire in their collecting. On the one hand, they want art that fills holes in the collection, thereby enhancing its “encyclopedic” range. On the other, they burn for masterpieces. Or, to put it in a way no curator would, they are animated by both disinterested desire and determined lust. The lust is especially admirable. In this exhibit, the sheer visual power of many of the works is astonishing. I had no idea that collecting at this level remained possible in the medieval field. Great – not just good – examples of stained glass, metalwork, wood carving, and other media are on view. Many works fulfill both purposes of collecting, dotting the i’s while seducing the eye.

In its approach, “Mirror” avoids coddling the objects – which can make art seem distant, precious, and dull. Since permanent collections are always in danger of falling asleep, clever curators must find ways to be serious and playful at the same time, awakening the objects to the present without betraying their origins. Instead of just offering the public a treasure chest or a history lesson, which would have been the easy thing, the curators of “Mirror” have taken away some of the remoteness of medieval art by showing their objects thematically. One room, for example, is organized around angels – an obsession of our own time. Another demonstrates the influence of plant forms upon medieval craftsmen; you can admire the curling organic shapes both in large stone carvings and in the delicate painting of illuminated manuscripts. The grand religious passion of the Middle Ages is not avoided, but neither is it emphasized. As a result, the daily life of the period becomes vivid. The medieval seems remarkably close at hand.

Museums are peculiarly modern creations. Their obsessive drive to cultivate encyclopedic collections, always adding “prize pieces” to their holdings, is not something that would have occurred to ancient Egyptian or medieval society. There are many reasons for their behavior, but one of the most important is modern culture’s uneasy relation to the past – particularly its regret over what has been lost. The Cloisters represents an attempt not just to display medieval art, for example, but to re-create a timeless medieval aura. The cult of the masterpiece is in part a substitute for the cult of miracles, and the encyclopedic a pale compensation for the putative wholeness of the past. The Cloisters evokes, distantly, the kind of intense focus that the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi has embodied for centuries.

The earthquakes that badly damaged Assisi in September 1997 were particularly shocking because Assisi is supposed to be one of those places that never changes. It is a modern as well as a medieval shrine – where pilgrims come not just to worship Saint Francis but to revere a great permanent collection in situ. In the basilica, 2,000 square feet of fresco decoration, including painting by Cimabue and Giotto, cracked or came crashing down. The Met is displaying large, stomach-turning photographs of the rubble. The intention of “Treasury” is to publicize the disaster and – in an unspoken way – demonstrate that Assisi remains permanent.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, many of the finest artists and craftsmen of Europe came to Assisi to decorate its churches. Popes and kings also donated important works to the Franciscans. Not surprisingly, the town became one of Europe’s greatest expressions of medieval and early-Renaissance culture; the basilica is so richly decorated that it takes visitors days just to become oriented. “Treasury” contains about 70 paintings, textiles, illuminations, and works in gold and silver that are borrowed from Assisi itself, together with about 30 loans from American and European collections. Many of the paintings are smaller works, among them Fra Angelico’s tiny but brilliant Saint Anthony of Padua. (The way the artist asymmetrically positions Anthony in a strict, diamond-shaped space makes the monk – and his book – spring to life.) And one of the greatest works of medieval art, the Chalice of Nicholas IV, by the Sienese goldsmith Guccio di Mannaia, has made the trip to New York. This chalice, enriched with enamels, is impossible to overpraise. It shimmers with lush, golden lights, yet its proportions are restrained.

Most great European churches have a gamy, eccentric character. No permanent collection in a museum can hope to convey this power. Inevitably, something abstract or secondhand enters a show like “Mirrors.” The Assisi exhibit does, however, manage to bring some of the particular force of the basilica to New York. The reliquaries on display are one reason. While admiring the consummate formal artistry of a medieval artisan, for example, you will inevitably wonder whether there really is a piece of chopped-off finger behind the gold. (The names of some reliquaries are themselves wonderful, such as “The Reliquary of Saint Andrew’s Finger” and “The Reliquary of the Seamless Robe.”) The here’s-this-and-there’s-that selection of objects, many of which were made by anonymous or little-known artists, also reflects the idiosyncratic life of the collection. A Franciscan treasury does not have to arrange or explain itself. It is naturally haphazard – a gathering of divine loot.

Getting Medieval