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Cleveland will Premiere First Major U.S. Exhibition of Christian Relics and Reliquaries

CLEVELAND, OH.- This fall the Cleveland Museum of Art will premiere a groundbreaking exhibition examining the role of relics and reliquaries in the development of Christianity and the visual arts. Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe is the first major exhibition in the United States to consider the history of relics and reliquaries and will feature more than 150 works of art from Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and early modern Europe. The exhibition runs at CMA from Oct. 17, 2010, to Jan. 17, 2011, before traveling to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the British Museum in London.

Many of the relics and reliquaries in the exhibition have never before been seen outside of their home countries. Included in Treasures of Heaven are metalwork, paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscripts drawn not only from celebrated public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, but also from important church treasuries.

In addition to the three organizing museums, institutions such as the Vatican, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are lending works to the exhibition. Seventeen objects will come from the CMA’s own extensive collection of medieval art; nine travel from the Vatican collections, including three reliquaries from the Sancta Sanctorum, or Holy of Holies, the medieval papacy’s private relic chapel.

“People who think of the Middle Ages as a dark period for art and culture will find their perceptions challenged by this exhibition,” says Griffith Mann, chief curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and co-curator of Treasures of Heaven. “The relics and reliquaries showcased in Treasures of Heaven provide evidence of religious objects traveling across tremendous distances and of people making pilgrimages across the Mediterranean to walk in the footsteps of important figures from sacred history. The medieval devotion to relics gave birth to new forms of monumental architecture, supported extensive pilgrimage networks and prompted significant developments in the visual arts.”

The physical remains of holy men and women and other objects associated with them play a central role in a number of religions and cultures and were especially important to the development of Christianity. To convey the sanctity of these relics to the faithful, medieval artists created precious containers, or reliquaries, for churches, shrines and personal use. Often covered in gold and silver or encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, these objects commanded attention. Their outward appearance reminded worshippers of the extraordinary nature of the matter they contained.

Powerful in inspiring religious devotion among believers, relics also captured the imagination of medieval arts patrons. By the height of the Middle Ages, artists had developed highly imaginative containers for sacred remains, combining innovative techniques with beautiful design.

Visitors to the exhibition will witness the transformation of reliquaries from simple containers for the earthly remains of Christian holy men and women to lavishly decorated objects of personal and communal devotion. “By the first centuries of Christianity, the ashes, bones and body parts of Christian saints and martyrs were considered ‘more valuable than precious stones and finer than fine gold,’ and were therefore treated with utmost reverence,” says Holger Klein, CMA’s former Robert P. Bergman curator of medieval art and co-curator of the exhibition. “As substances believed to be endowed with the power and living presence of the saint or martyr, they were frequently enshrined in containers that matched their spiritual importance. Their precious materials facilitated their use in both liturgical and secular contexts.” Highlights of Treasures of Heaven include:

• Bust Reliquary of St. Baudime, c. 1180-1200; Romanesque (French, Auvergne); gilded bronze, gems and enamel with a wood core; Parish Church of Saint-Nectaire, Puy-le-Dôme. This nearly life-sized bust is one of the earliest surviving objects of its kind and travels outside of France for the first time. The stippling of the beard, the rhythmic curls of hair and the elegant patterning of the saint’s vestments conjure a human presence even as its gold surfaces assert the holy nature of the effigy.

• Box with Stones from the Holy Land, sixth-seventh century; Early Byzantine (Palestine); box: tempera and gold leaf on wood; Vatican, Museo Sacro. These stones demonstrate the special status accorded to sacred sites (or loca sancta) associated with events from Christ’s life. This is also one of the oldest objects attesting to the practice of collecting souvenirs from pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

• Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude, c. 1045; Ottonian (German, Lower Saxon, Hildesheim); gold, cloisonné enamel, gems, red porphyry and pearls on an oak wood core; Cleveland Museum of Art. CMA is renowned for its collection of objects from the Guelph Treasure, one of the most important church treasuries to have survived from medieval Germany. Also included in the exhibition will be the Arm Reliquary of the Apostles, which belonged to this distinguished ecclesiastical collection as well.

• Reliquary Shrine of Saint Amandus, 1250-1275; Gothic (Flemish, Western Belgium); gilded copper, silver, champlevé enamel and semiprecious stones; Walters Art Museum. This large, church-shaped shrine is said to have once housed the relics of a seventh-century saint who served as a missionary and bishop to the western regions of present-day Belgium.

• Head Reliquary of St. Eustace, c. 1200, Romanesque (Swiss, Upper Rheinish, Basel), silver and silver gilt on a wooden core; British Museum. The shape of this reliquary, containing fragments of the skull of the Roman military leader Saint Eustace along with other relics, was intended to bring worshippers face to face with the heavenly visage of the venerated man.

Other media — including painting, photography, audio and video — will provide contemporary visitors with insight into how relics and reliquaries would have been encountered by medieval audiences. Although the objects in the exhibition primarily cover the time period from Late Antiquity until the Reformation, connections made to the living traditions of Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches, as well as a fascination with souvenirs and mementos in contemporary secular society, demonstrate their important legacy.

Cleveland Museum of Art | Christian Relics and Reliquaries | Griffith Mann |

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