At Large  September 5, 2018  Chandra Noyes

Reading Art: "The Middle Ages in 50 Objects"

The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1982.63

Demon in chains, c. 1453. Style of Muhammad Siya Qalam (Iranian). Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

In a new text from Cambridge Press, authors Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein offer readers easy access to understanding a complex period of time. The Middle Ages in 50 Objects (Cambridge Press, 2018) uses individual works from the comprehensive collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art to exemplify both broad movements and specific moments in history.

As the introductory text explains, the Middle Ages is not a simple and cohesive era. To plainly summarize life from the 3rd to 16th Centuries across several continents would be a difficult task indeed. The term encompasses many cultures, regions, and religions. To cover this wide range of cultural production, the authors have carefully selected objects that tell compelling stories. The text is subdivided into four sections that are then arranged chronologically: The Holy and the Faithful; The Sinful and the Spectral; Daily Life and Its Fictions; and Death and Its Aftermath. Within these themes, European, Byzantine, and Islamic cultures are explored through the objects they created.

Button, 500s, Byzantium.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Horace Kelley 1946.259

Button, 500s. Byzantium, early Byzantine period, 6th century. Rock crystal with a garnet mounted in a gold granulated star.

Feline incense burner, 1100s
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund 1948.308

Feline incense burner, 1100s. Eastern Iran, western Afghanistan, or Turkmenistan, Khorasan. Copper alloy, cast and chased.

S-Shaped Fibula, 500s
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Joe Hatzenbuehler 2007.225

S-Shaped Fibula, 500s. Frankish, 6th century. Silver with garnets.

Demon in chains, c. 1453. Style of Muhammad Siya Qalam (Iranian)
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1982.63

Demon in chains, c. 1453. Style of Muhammad Siya Qalam (Iranian). Opaque watercolor and gold on paper.

Using an object-centered approach lends an intimacy and specificity to a text that has broad and far-reaching goals. Coupled with beautiful images and helpful maps, the essays that contextualize the objects are in-depth, yet approachable.  Clearly written and easy to read, they will appeal to the layperson and scholar, as they offer easily digestible bites of dense information. The expertise and passion of the authors is clear, as they tackle a broad range of objects in every sense: coming from every medieval era, geographical range, in common and rare materials, serving a range of uses.

But the Middle Ages is particularly illuminated by its material objects because its culture was so attuned to the meanings of things as they were felt, seen, heard, tasted, and even smelled—the incense burning in a mosque, the gleam of light from a garnet brooch, the chanting in a synagogue, the touch of fingers to an ivory mirror, the Eucharistic wafer dissolving in the mouth
The Middle Ages in 50 Objects, xiv

The Cleveland Museum of Art, Holden Collection 1916.795

The Madonna of Humility with the Temptation of Eve, c. 1400. Olivuccio di Ciccarello (Italian, Marche, 1360/65-1439). Tempera and gold on wood panel.

The author’s interdisciplinary approach to explaining each object uses them as a point of reference for well-researched and revelatory interpretations. Using art historical, museological, and historical lenses brings each object to life, revealing the multi-dimensional backgrounds of each work, and offering an engaging angle for a range of readers.

The Middle Ages in 50 Objects, by Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein, is available now from Cambridge Press.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra is managing editor for Art & Object.