The Impermanent Collection

This fall I’ve gone for a few escape days to the Medieval collections of the Metropolitan Museum. With reality TV running the planet, it felt right to connect to something permanent, to the superstitious and anarchic foundations of our culture.

“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages,” as Mark Twain said, and there’s nothing like a visit to the reliquary collection, the bejeweled, decorative boxes used to carry the sub-divided bones of the saints, for a good laugh. At the Louvre I once saw a reliquary battle crown, so a king could ride into battle with the bones of his kingdom’s favorite saint decorating his head.

First was up at The Cloisters, which I vowed to visit again just to see the gardens in high season. Medieval art is full of trippy aesthetic surprises, easier to like, in some respects, than the graph-paper Renaissance stuff that came after it. The Rolling Stones got dressed in Medieval garb for some of their album covers, a part of a revival of Medievalism in the 60s that included Terry Gilliam’s animation, whose inspiration I see in the tapestries.

I catch myself reading too much in museums: taking a brief look at an artifact, registering that it warrants a closer look, then reading the text that goes with it before spending any quality time with it. It’s better to look first, to take an object in as a piece of art without any context to crush its capacity to excite you. Then see what the context does.

julius-caesar-1410

J.C…..but not Jesus Christ.

Admiring a tapestry at the Cloisters, I figured it was a series of events in the life of a king, or possibly a bishop, knowing that the military-religious complex would have made Eisenhower blush. Well, it turns out it was a depiction of the life of Julius Caesar, from the Netherlands around the year 1405.

Of course they dressed him like a contemporary king, the way Shakespeare pictured ancient kings in Elizabethan costumes, but what was he doing there at all? It defies what we think we know, that no one cared about classical subjects, only religious ones, until traders brought ancient texts from the East, and the Italians spontaneously fell in love with the whole Greco-Roman thing, and a wonderful feeling spread north from Fra Lippo Lippi’s paintbrush as the 1400s went on. Well, in 1405 some important or at least rich person in Holland liked Caesar enough to commission a giant tapestry about his life, and there it was.

Back at the regular Met this week, I caught the exhibit Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. Though the projected images of modern Jerusalem on the walls gave some of the rooms a propagandistic feel, the collection was mind-blowing. Everybody was there! Jews and Muslims, sure, but also Orthodox Christians, Coptic crosses from Africa, invading Catholics, and a Chinese bowl that somebody got from somebody.

There was even a decorative golden plate with the coat of arms of the House of Lusignan, a French dynasty that ruled Cyprus for 300 years. The coat of arms was tiny, and the script all around it offering good wishes was in giant Arabic characters. Did everyone who could read and write know Arabic, and maybe something else as a second language, or was it the kind of gift a conquering king gets from the locals? “Here’s a lad and a lass in the national costume presenting you with our famously refreshing cultured goat milk drink, oh, and this plate with our favorite sayings on it”?

I’ve written before about my preference for museums as repositories of artifacts rather than overly-curated shows with too much thematic baggage. The Met, I was happy to see, now has a giant room in a far-off wing devoted to visible storage, where it keeps its 19th Century chairs and tea sets that aren’t sensational enough for prime time, crowded together but behind glass. History is full of contradictions. The Medieval collections are always full of hallucinations and murder, and above all surprises, and despite the curators’ best efforts the Jerusalem show is another good example.

Comments

  1. Valerie Bowe says:

    Good one!!! >

  2. I always love to visit the Cloisters. I have the same problem with wanting to read every exhibit sign, so I really enjoy when I can go back to the same museum over and over. I find that each time I focus more on the art itself, discovering something new each visit.

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