NEW YORK In the middle of the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a nugget of compressed light called “Medieval Treasures From Hildesheim.”
The show is a one-room cluster of 50 objects, many jewel-encrusted or covered in gold. In other ways, the art is almost beyond reach, being about the power politics of spirituality in a distant age, a subject that today’s drive-by museumgoer would seem to know little, or care little, about.
A millennium ago, Hildesheim, in northern Germany, was one of the ecclesiastical centers of Western Europe. Under the patronage of Ottonian emperors who ruled from 919 to 1014, it was a city of churches, the outstanding one being its grand cathedral, packed with art advertising the glory of God and kings. Because only the best would do, Hildesheim developed a top-class art industry. Its metal-casting workshops were superbly innovative; illuminated books poured from its scriptoria.
Today, its churches and museums preserve one of the richest and densest concentrations of 11th-century European religious art. The Met show is pure cream skimmed off the top.
That the art has survived at all is some kind of miracle. Many of these objects were made as much for active use as for contemplation. Large-scale sculptures were on public display in churches, being touched and kissed. Smaller ones traveled the streets in processions. Gospel books were thumbed-through during services; liturgical vessels were moved about: carried, cleaned, dropped, repaired.
And, of course, history kept happening. Power changed hands, and, with it, control over churches and treasures. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation put Roman Catholic art under threat. Toward the end of World War II, Hildesheim was leveled by bombs. A renovation of the rebuilt cathedral has supplied the pretext for sending its art to the Met.
Although almost none of the work can be attributed to individual artists, the name of one man rises: Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim from 993 to 1022. Of noble Saxon lineage, he was more than a high-ranking cleric. He was a cosmopolitan traveler, a court fixture, a cultural impresario, a self-promoter and, eventually, a canonized saint. He was also one of the great shaping art patrons of his day, and possibly an artist himself.
At least two sculptures, monumental in feeling and historically associated with Bernward’s name, are in the exhibit. One is the Golden Madonna, a statue of the Virgin and Child carved from linden wood overlaid with sheets of hammered gold.
The Golden Madonna is significant as one of the earliest three-dimensional sculptures from medieval Europe. Another is a 5-foot-tall figure of the crucified Jesus, believed to have been commissioned by Bernward for the convent of Ringelheim, where his sister was abbess.
You don’t need to know dogmas or histories or to move far from a secular present. You just have to be willing to stop, pay attention, spend time, to act as if objects from the past had something true to tell you about your life in the present, how to live it, what to feel about it. They do. The art of looking is the only art really in danger of being lost.
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