The Cleveland Museum of Art possesses one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval European art in the world.
Opened in 1916, the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio houses an encyclopedic collection assembled by a succession of extraordinary directors and curators and funded by generous benefactors. It is particularly renowned for having some of the finest medieval art in the United States. In 2005 the museum closed its permanent collection galleries for the first time since it opened to embark on a large-scale renovation and expansion. Medieval Treasures offered an unprecedented opportunity to view the museum’s celebrated Early Christian, Byzantine, Western Medieval, and Early Renaissance works of art in Nashville before they returned home to be installed in the renovated museum in Cleveland.
The exhibition spanned the history of Western art from the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
Christian Art of the Late Antique Period, ca. 200–400 Christianity emerged in Roman-occupied Palestine around the year 30 in response to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. By the beginning of the third century, the new religion had spread throughout the Roman Empire and attracted members of both the upper and lower classes. Christianity was initially a clandestine faith, but in the fourth century Constantine the Great (ca. 272–337) declared it the official religion of the Roman Empire. The emperor sponsored major ecclesiastical building programs such as the Lateran Basilica and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and these churches became important destinations for pilgrims.
Early Christian artists drew on the pagan imagery of the late Roman Empire. Images such as the sheep-bearer, a traditional Roman subject idealizing rustic life, were used and interpreted by Christians according to biblical scripture. The Roman sheep-bearer became the Good Shepherd, an allusion to Christ’s promise to sacrifice his own life for that of his flock. The earliest Christian images of this type have been preserved in Roman funereal art, including marble sarcophagi and wall paintings in underground cemeteries known as catacombs. In addition to the Good Shepherd, images of the Old Testament prophet Jonah were especially popular. Art in the Byzantine Empire, ca. 330–1453 A new chapter in the history of the Roman Empire began in 330, when Constantine the Great transferred the imperial residence from Rome to Byzantium, a small city on the Bosphorus, and renamed it Constantinople (City of Constantine) in his honor. The city grew in size and importance under Constantine and his successors and flourished as the capital of the Christianized Roman Empire, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire.
A city of legendary wealth, Constantinople was sacked and looted in 1204 by Crusaders, who made it the capital of the Latin Empire. Only in 1261 was the Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (1223–82) able to recapture the city. The Palaeologan dynasty would rule the Byzantine Empire until it finally fell to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (1432–81). Under the Turks, Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.
Throughout its history, artistic production in the Byzantine Empire was intimately tied to its Roman heritage and Christian religious practices. Between 726 and 843 the use of religious images (icons) was hotly debated, but Byzantine art and culture flowered afterward, as the exquisite quality and technical refinement of liturgical objects, books, and objects of personal adornment and devotion from the middle and late Byzantine period attest.
The Art of the Migration Period, ca. 300–700 From the fourth century onward, the northern borders of the Roman Empire came under increasing attack by Germanic peoples who had started to move westward following the arrival of the Huns, a central Asian nomadic tribe, in eastern and central Europe. The wave of migrations set in motion by the Huns’ incursion into Europe eventually led to the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire and the establishment of powerful “barbarian” kingdoms by the Goths, Vandals, Franks, and Langobards in the empire’s former territories. Given the nomadic past of these tribes, their material culture consisted largely of personal and portable objects, including elaborately decorated weapons, tools, and jewelry.
By the seventh and eighth centuries, the Christianization of most Germanic and Celtic tribes of Continental Europe resulted in an increasing demand for ecclesiastical buildings, liturgical objects, and illuminated manuscripts that were often a rich blend of both Roman and Germanic artistic styles, techniques, and traditions. The Rise of Luxury Arts in Early Medieval Europe, ca. 800–1100 The coronation of Charlemagne (768–814) as emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day of 800 resulted in a wide range of political and religious reforms as well as an unprecedented surge of interest in the arts and culture of antiquity. Northern artists, deeply rooted in the abstract traditions of their Germanic ancestors, started to copy classical and late Roman models in architecture, sculpture, painting, and fine metalwork, thus adopting styles and techniques of the Graeco-Roman past and blending them with their own traditions.
Charlemagne’s interest in the promotion of classical art and culture continued under his imperial successors in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The luxury arts of this period are characterized by a new degree of sophistication, artistic accomplishment, and technical refinement on par with the most refined products of contemporary Byzantine court culture. In addition to the emperor and his court, powerful bishops, abbots, abbesses, and aristocrats excelled as patrons of the arts. In the case of the Guelph Treasure, on display in this gallery, an initial commission by a wealthy aristocratic patron developed into an important collection of sacred objects and relics tied to the Church of Saint Blaise in Brunswick, Germany.
Art in the Age of the Monasteries, ca. 1000–1200 Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, powerful and wealthy monasteries emerged as Europe’s preeminent centers of artistic production and display. Grand abbey churches and extensive monastic complexes accommodating the needs and activities of the monks were constructed. Abbey churches were richly decorated with stone sculpture that effectively narrated Christian stories to the largely illiterate faithful who visited monasteries on pilgrimage (the journey to shrines housing the relics of saints). These churches also required furnishings such as altar crosses, chalices, and reliquaries; many monasteries formed workshops in which such objects were made using fine materials.
From monastic scriptoria, where books were copied, illustrated, and bound, came manuscripts with lavish illuminations. Several works of art in this gallery and the next were made for monasteries located in modern-day France and Germany. Art in France, ca. 1150–1300 During the rule of the Capetian kings, France became a unified kingdom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Paris, its capital, evolved into a great artistic center where exquisite illuminated manuscripts, ivory carvings, and metalwork were made to suit the royal court’s taste for luxury goods. As a consequence of the Capetians’ geographical expansion, cathedrals were erected throughout France. Built in an entirely new style, these light-filled buildings soared triumphantly toward heaven. Stone sculpture enriched their exterior façades and stained-glass windows decorated their interiors; both employed sacred narratives for the benefit of the illiterate faithful. Cathedrals also housed treasuries of church furnishings fashioned from expensive materials. Not surprisingly, these impressive new churches were seen by many as an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, an embodiment of heaven on earth. Art at the Court of the Burgundian Dukes, 1364–1477 From 1364 until 1477, four successive dukes of Burgundy presided over one of the most sophisticated courts in medieval Europe. The dukes sought to enhance their status by displaying their wealth and taste, and became brilliant patrons of the luxury arts. Fine tapestries decorated the walls of their residences. They offered extraordinary gold, enameled, and bejeweled objects as weddings gifts or to celebrate the New Year. Their libraries housed impressive collections of illuminated manuscripts. They founded and supplied the Carthusian monastery of Champmol near Dijon in eastern France with sculpture, devotional panel paintings, altarpieces, liturgical vessels, and illuminated manuscripts. Many of these works were created by Parisian artists already accustomed to creating highly refined objects for the French royal court, whose opulence the Burgundian court rivaled and surpassed. Art in Late Medieval Germany, ca. 1300–1530
While the territories of the Holy Roman Empire initially resisted the new trends in French art and architecture, German artists and architects soon began to adopt French Gothic aesthetic ideals and fuse them with local traditions. Employing Europe’s preeminent architects and artists, Emperor Charles IV (1347–78) attempted to transform Prague into a capital city on par with Paris and Constantinople. In urban areas, new artistic patrons emerged in response to the economic boom experienced in many cities throughout medieval Europe. Well-to-do individuals, guilds, and religious confraternities displayed their wealth, piety, and pride by furnishing churches with stained-glass windows, devotional sculptures, and altarpieces. Artists created new types of religious images to facilitate the highly spiritual private prayer promoted by new religious orders. As in Byzantine and Italy, painting on wooden panel became widespread in Germany. Small-scale works were employed for private devotion in domestic and monastic settings, while large-scale altarpieces ornamented churches and chapels.
Art in Late Medieval Italy, ca. 1250–1450 During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, civic pride and religious fervor swelled in the newly built town halls and churches of Italy’s prosperous cities. So, too, did the motivation to create works of art to adorn them. While traditional art forms such as sculpture and manuscript illumination were of continued importance, painting on wooden panels constituted a significant innovation. Large-scale altarpieces focused unprecedented attention on the altar, while smaller panels satisfied individuals’ growing desires for personalized devotional stimuli. Turning to the Byzantine icon tradition for inspiration, artists adopted their gold backgrounds, schematized settings, and hieratic figure style, but direct observation of the real world, an interest in storytelling, and attention to human emotion increasingly informed their works. Such developments contributed to the artistic Renaissance of the next century.
This exhibition was organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art.