Monday, April 4, 2011

Spring Break: Relics and Reliquaries in Baltimore

Spring break was almost a month ago, and I took advantage of the time off to drive up to Baltimore to see a special exhibit on medieval relics and reliquaries at the Walters Art Museum. I invited a friend of mine who is an art conservator to go with me, because driving the I-95 corridor between DC and Baltimore is much more bearable with company, and I thought she would find the exhibit interesting.

The drive up actually wasn't bad--the only anomaly was the speeding truck with "infectious medical waste/chemotherapeutic waste" emblazoned on its side--and with the help of the GPS device, we found the museum without any trouble. The parking garage, however, was a different story. Instead of giving us a ticket at the entrance, the machine spat out a nickel-sized orange plastic disc called a "chip coin." Neither of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we weren't sure what we were supposed to do with it. Signs near the elevator informed us that we had two options: we could insert the "chip coin" into a machine on the ground floor of the garage upon our return, pay the required amount, and then insert the coin into the exit gate within 10 minutes, or we could proceed directly to the exit gate, insert the chip coin and pay by credit card. I put the device into a zippered compartment in my handbag (it was alarmingly small and I worried about losing it) and we went on our way.

The exhibit was very well done, and included Christian relics and reliquaries from Late Antiquity (roughly the 3rd through the 5th or 6th centuries, depending on which event you choose to mark its end) to the modern era. The curators did a good job of highlighting the transition from late Roman amulets and charms to early Christian relics, and I got a chance to try out my rusty inscription-deciphering skills (I did pretty well, which was a relief) on several of the displays.

For me, the highlights of the exhibit were a late Roman reliquary that had a hole in one side into which oil would be poured, and two seventh-century Irish bell-shaped reliquaries. The former was interesting because it answered a question I'd had since reading the Travels of Egeria in a class on Medieval Pilgrimage and Crusade several years ago. In her travelogue, Egeria mentions a particular type of reliquary into which pilgrims could pour oil and receive the same oil back after it had come into contact with the holy relics inside. The pilgrims would bottle up this oil and take it home with them as souvenirs. I always wondered what one of these reliquaries would have looked like, and now that I've seen this exhibit, I understand how the process worked. The bell reliquaries were interesting because they are from the time period that I am specializing in and because they are extremely rare. When the Vikings invaded Ireland in the 9th century, they scooped up all the decorative objects they could find--anything that looked like it could be melted down or stripped down to recover precious metals. Most of the objects that were produced have been lost, and it was exciting to see two that have been recovered.

I also learned a few surprising things--which is why I go to these exhibits in the first place. For example:

1. One of the relics on display portrayed Pope Gregory I's "vision of the transformation of the host [into the body of Christ]." Gregory I is one of the two seventh-century churchmen I'm researching for my dissertation, so I've read slogged through several of his major works, and read three biographical accounts. I haven't encountered this vision in any of them, and all I've been able to find online so far is a reference to a 17th-century depiction of the event by a Mexican artist. I've made myself a note to come back to this question after the semester ends in a few weeks.

2. Relics and reliquaries aren't exclusive to the religious sphere. The exhibit also displayed a couple of secular reliquaries that enshrined the court documents of popular French kings. When you think about it, we've done the same kind of thing by preserving the original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in the National Archives.

3. In the high middle ages, it was common for pilgrims to receive medallions or badges either at the beginning of their pilgrimage (thus certifying their status as a pilgrim and entitling them to special treatment along the way) or at the end, as a souvenir. These medallions were inscribed with symbols of the saint or shrine visited and became collector's items. When I saw them in the display case, I immediately thought of the colorful metal volksmarch badges on my father-in-law's walking stick. He participated in several volksmarches while he was stationed in Germany, and in a way, it's the same kind of idea--you sign up for a non-competitive walking event of a fixed distance (either for health or recreation), and you receive a commemorative medallion upon completion of the course. I'm now wondering if the origins of volksmarching can be traced to late medieval pilgrimage in some way. Think about it: by the late middle ages, unscrupulous travelers were casting a shadow of suspicion over the practice of pilgrimage, and large segments of Germany--the country in which the volksmarch originated--had embraced Protestantism, which denied the value of relics, shrines and pilgrimages. Did the civil authorities need an outlet for people who wished to travel? I suspect that this will be a dead-end (I think the origins of volksmarching are too late to fit into this thesis), but I may look into the question when I get a break from other projects.

To return to the saga of the "chip coin:" we walked back to the parking garage and decided to try the walk-up machine on the ground floor. We fed the coin into the machine, and my friend followed the on-screen instructions, only to get an error message; the machine had apparently decided that it didn't want to read credit cards that day. We called over to the attendant in the office across from the elevator to ask for help but couldn't understand his answer. The only option left was to try paying at the exit gate, so that's what we decided to do. We found the exit (one of the narrowest alleys I've ever seen--I had to do a three-point turn just to get out of the gate) and went through the drill again. The machine accepted the coin but wouldn't read the card. After two or three attempts, we finally figured out that the card reader was the other slot--the one that looked like the receipt printer--and we were on our way. I was glad there were no other cars behind me at the exit!

In spite of the cold weather, a bad sinus infection, and the wreck that added 40 minutes to the drive home, the excursion was enjoyable. I may just have to make a return trip for the closing day lecture (on the Book of Kells!) on May 15--it would be a fitting way to celebrate the end of the semester.

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