Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Gertsman and Rosenwein

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Normally, I review books focused on the ancient world but I received an email from Cambridge University Press asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of their new release "The Middle Ages in 50 objects." Even though the Middle Ages is not the period of my personal research, I still enjoy examining art and artifacts from the Middle Ages when I photograph the permanent collections of of the museums I visit, so I agreed to give it my attention.

As promised, the book was lavishly illustrated with full page color photos of the artifacts selected for inclusion.  I was surprised that all of the objects came from a single museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, though.  Most world-class museums have galleries of medieval art so I was not expecting a single museum not devoted to that historical period, to have the breadth needed to encompass an entire age.

But Professor Elina Gertsman of Case Western Reserve University and her co-author, Professor Barbara Rosenwein of Loyola University Chicago, have certainly selected objects that are representative of their four focus areas, The Holy and the Faithful, The Sinful and the Spectral, Daily Life and Its Fictions, and Death and Its Aftermath.

Most objects are Christian-themed, but several artifacts from Islamic regions are also included.  I was particularly surprised to find a sculpture dated as early as 280-290 CE to be the first object discussed, though. I usually consider the Middle Ages a period from the fifth to fifteenth centuries CE, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and lasting into the early Renaissance.  But, as a scholar of the ancient period, I was, of course, anxious to read what these distinguished art historians had to say about the piece.

Jonah Cast Up Roman 280-290 CE. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The piece, entitled Jonah Cast Up, was a bit baffling to me. Most of us are quite familiar with the tale of Jonah being swallowed by a a huge fish (New International version, King James version) or dag gadol - great fish (Hebrew). But here, the "fish" has the head and forepaws of a wolf, typically symbolic of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the male figure has the hair style and beard often seen in Roman art depicting Jupiter.

The authors, too, recognized the resemblance of the Jonah figure to Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon).

"A strong muscular man with an abundant beard and wild curly hair, Jonah dives out from the jaws of the beast, arms up, the movement of his torso echoing the direction of the sea creature's pricked up ears and scrunched snout. The broad-shouldered Jonah, with his copious curls and robust arms, is reminiscent of images of Zeus, the Greek god of Thunder and the ruler of Olympus."

But they say nothing about the symbolism of the wolf other than to observe that the great fish of the Jonah story has sometimes been interpreted as a sea monster (in later Greek translations of the scriptures).

I thought, perhaps, the archaeological context could provide additional insight.

The authors point to collateral finds as possible evidence of a patron with Christian leanings.
"This sculpture seems to have formed part of an ensemble.  It was supposedly found buried in a very large jar alongside six paired portrait busts, an image of Christ the Good Shepherd, and three other representations of Jonah in prayer, under the shade plant, and being swallowed by the sea monster. The patrons therefore appear to have had Christian leanings."

The dating appears to be tentative and the authors speculate whether it was produced a little later than the date given, perhaps during Diocletian's persecution of Christian believers in 302 CE.

Portrait head of Diocletian photographed at the
Art Institute of Chicago by Mary Harrsch © 2016
"Soldiers were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face discharge; Christian churches were destroyed; books of scripture were confiscated and burned; and Christians were stripped of their rank if they did not conform, making them liable to torture or execution. Whether carved before the Great Persecution or at some point during it, the marble image of the rebellious Jonah - not only saved from drowning but also finding himself cast safely ashore - must have been exceptionally reassuring."

I would offer a slightly different interpretation as another possibility. I think the sculpture could have been produced a little later still, during the reign of Constantius II.  Although seemingly an image representing the Jonah story, I think it could have been carved to represent the expulsion of paganism from the Roman Empire itself.  That would account for the human figure's resemblance to Zeus (Jupiter) and for the wolf's head on the sea monster's body - still probably reassuring to a Christian-leaning patron who may have suffered during the Great Persecution.

I definitely agree with the author's summary conclusion, however.

"Jonah Cast Up stands as a perfect witness to the cultural and religious complexity of the late third [and early fourth] century."

I also found a gilt-silver arm reliquary of the Apostles, circa 1190 CE, from lower Saxony interesting too. Although I view the veneration of bits of human corpses to be a macabre practice, I have admired beautiful reliquaries, strictly from an artistic perspective, at a number of museums I have visited.  As an ancient scholar, though, the thing I found really intriguing was the authors' observation that often reliquaries do not house the body part they represent, although this one did.  It seems deception has plagued religions for thousands of years as I have read that ancient Egyptian votive mummies depicting various animals rarely contain the animal they represent either.

I found the background information on a 14th century French ivory mirror case depicting a couple playing chess quite eye-opening. In fact, the authors' description of some of the symbolism represented by this particular mirror and chess as a metaphor for courtship made me blush!

"Such mirrors were popular in French and German wealthy households, surviving in large numbers. The subjects carved on their cases were almost always secular, some featuring the God of Love, others the Castle of Love Under attack still other scenes of courtship and narratives from romances.  The game of chess, very popular in medieval literature, was particularly favored for mirrors, which were given as gifts and often formed part of a trousseau."

I'll definitely have to keep my eye out for more of these little marvels in my museum travels!

I found the authors' background information and symbolic interpretation of the selected artifacts in "The Middle Ages in 50 Objects" quite fascinating and highly recommend this text.



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