While renovations usually involve closing something off, recent work at Germany’s Hildesheim Cathedral has restored its medieval treasures for display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim,” which opened at the Met on Sept. 17, consists of 48 pieces of ecclesiastical artwork commissioned by Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, an avid patron of the arts. A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1985, the renovation of the Hildesheim Cathedral has made these treasures available to the public for the first time, and this exhibit marks the first time many of these artifacts have been shown in the United States.
The exhibit fosters an appreciation for medieval artists, who were able to create inexplicably beautiful pieces of artwork with what we consider today to be such limited means. What was crafted in the name of religion in the ninth and 10th centuries can be appreciated in the 21st century as stunning examples of art.
The Ringelheim crucifix, mounted on an impressive life-sized cross, is positioned in the center of the gallery. As the only artifact in the room made entirely of wood, the crucifix immediately commands attention. It dates from before 1022 and is considered one of the earliest and best representations of medieval three-dimensional sculpture. Its depiction of Christ’s eyes, looking on museum visitors with a mixture of both determination and pity, is its defining feature. Looking into those eyes forms a bond that is not easily broken—his gaze follows you around the exhibit.
While the crucifix displays the stark suffering deeply ingrained in the religious thought of the Middle Ages, most of the exhibit focuses on the celebratory aspect of religion—opulence is everywhere. Golden reliquaries containing the bones of long-dead saints and bejeweled gospels line the walls. The splendor and wealth of the Catholic Church at the time cannot be disputed.
The Hildesheim cathedral boasts several other sublime examples of medieval craftsmanship, such as the famous imposing bronze doors, depicting biblical events from Genesis through the life of Christ, and the cathedral column, a copy of a Roman monument from antiquity. Though these could not leave the cathedral, the museum has installed a short slideshow of pictures of the missing pieces to supplement the exhibit.
While the museum explanation plaques presuppose knowledge of the functions of Catholic liturgical objects, the art can be enjoyed from a purely aesthetic perspective even without this information.
“Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim” runs at the Metropolitan Museum through Jan. 5, 2014.