Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exhibit on Medieval Jewish Artifacts at the Wallace Collection

by J J Cohen

(a press release forwarded to me by S. Rees Jones)


Treasures of the Black Death: 19 February – 10 May 2009
Press view: 18 February, 9.30 – 11.30am

Two extraordinary hoards of jewellery, medieval silver vessels and coins, one discovered 650 years after it was concealed, probably by Jews at the most perilous time in their history prior to the Holocaust, go on display in Britain for the first time in ‘Treasures of the Black Death’ at the Wallace Collection from 19 February.

The two hoards include the three earliest known examples of Jewish wedding rings, inscribed in Hebrew with the words ‘good fortune’ and in the form of miniature houses, symbolizing both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem. They were discovered in the Jewish quarter of Colmar, France, in 1863 and in Erfurt, Germany, in 1998, close to the town’s 11th-century synagogue, the oldest in Europe. This treasure would have continued to lie hidden if it had not been for archeological excavations for a block of flats.

In the 14th century, Erfurt was an important Jewish settlement with a Jewish community well integrated into town life. Members of the community held important positions and were protected by the local bishops and kings. Despite this, as the plague known as the Black Death approached, old associations were quickly replaced by mass paranoia.

As the Black Death laid waste to vast swathes of Europe, wiping out a third of the population, terrified local people, unable to find a cause for the suffering, searched for a scapegoat. Suspicion and fear immediately fell upon the Jewish population, who were accused of poisoning the wells. Many Jews buried their most precious belongings, hoping to return later, but poignantly, as a result of ensuing large-scale pogroms throughout Europe, never returned to reclaim them. 1000 were killed on a single day in Erfurt, 2 March 1349.

As well as shedding new light on another dark chapter in Europe’s history, the objects illuminate both the lives of the Jewish communities who buried them and the wider picture of medieval fashion and craftsmanship. Many pieces are very intimate and extremely personal. As well as the wedding rings, the exhibition will include ‘double cups’ used in the wedding ceremony and betrothal gifts. These add an even more poignant and tragic perspective to the story.

Aside from the pieces of jewellery, the coinage and silverware tell us a great deal about the society of the time. The diverse coinage from all over Europe found in Erfurt, reveal the town to be at the centre of a fluid, integrated and thriving economy. The silverware is vital in elucidating the work of the secular medieval silversmith. Created for fashion and regular use, these objects were not meant to last. Whilst we retain an important collection of religious silverware, this exhibition will provide a perfect time capsule of secular pieces of the period. One fascinating object is the only surviving medieval toilet set in the world. The silver bottle once contained three beauty accessories, but the only one surviving is an ear cleaner. It is totally unique, bearing a long chain so it could be worn around the waist.

The exhibition will illustrate the grandeur of medieval fashion and craftsmanship and tell the story of the tragic circumstances that led to the hoard’s concealment. Following the Wallace Collection’s exhibition the works from Erfurt will go on permanent display at the former synagogue in the city.

The Wallace Collection owns one of the richest and most interesting collections in Britain of art from this period, making it an ideal venue for the exhibition. It was Sir Richard Wallace who extended the Collection’s chronological range back to medieval times when, during the 19th century, there was an enormous growth of interest in medieval and Renaissance art.

PRESS INFORMATION: Jeanette Ward / Theresa Simon & Partners Ltd
020 7734 4800 / 07729 930 812 /

1. The major sponsor of the exhibition is J Leon Group.
2. The exhibition is curated by Christine Descatoire of the Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny, Paris. It was shown in Paris as ‘Tresors de la peste Noire’, in a similar form in 2007.
3. A full illustrated catalogue (ISBN 0900785950) is available to accompany the exhibition, with essays by Christine Descatoire, Karin Sczech and Marian Campbell, among others.

When: 19 February – 10 May 2009
Opening Times: Open daily, 10am – 5pm
Where: The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN
Eating: The Wallace restaurant is open on Friday & Saturday evenings until 10pm.
How to reach us: Tube: Bond St., Baker St. and Oxford Circus Bus: 2, 10, 12, 13, 30, 74, 82, 94, 113, 137, 274


Unknown said...

Hi! There's a new Peterman's Eye Travel site and today's post is on medieval city planning. Thought I'd share!


Karl Steel said...

The two hoards include the three earliest known examples of Jewish wedding rings, inscribed in Hebrew with the words ‘good fortune’ and in the form of miniature houses, symbolizing both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem.

Fascinating stuff. I wonder about the wedding rings, first of all. I've often been curious--but not so curious that I've bothered to check--to know when the wedding ring becomes part of wedding ceremonies (and when it became a permanently worn marker of marriage and when, also, this mark of 'belonging to someone' became understood as 'off the market'). There's an indication here that Jewish and Xian wedding ceremonies had something in common. Who borrowed this element from whom? Or did they both derive from a common source?

Also, the miniature building on the ring reminds me of the uncountable paintings of saints holding the cities for whom they serve as patron. Assuming I'm not way off base here, again, ho borrowed this element from whom? Or did they both derive from a common source?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl, re: wedding rings, like I know? This is your homework. Full report tomorrow, please.

One thing that has become clear to me from reading so much Yuval and (especially) Boyarin this year is that the question of "Who borrowed this element from whom?" is typically nearly impossible to answer. European Christian and Jewish communities were so intertwined in the later Middle Ages that influence allocation quickly becomes a chicken and egg game. Boyarin for example talks of "theme(s) common to the two Judaic dialects, inflected differently for each" (Border Lines 5).

Karl Steel said...

like I know? This is your homework. Full report tomorrow, please.

Wait, whose project is this anyway?

Well, to get a good solid start, I'd begin with F. L. Critchlow, "On the Forms of Betrothal and Wedding Ceremonies in the Old-French "Romans D'Aventure" Modern Philology 2 (1905): 497-537, particularly 519-522. You can get this on JSTOR. See in particular 520 n4 for a brief and interesting summary of the use of the Roman anulus pronubus and the use of rings in other transactions, including business transactions.

Even after Rome falls, it's clear that wedding rings continued to be used. See Ernst H. Kantorowicz, "On the Golden Marriage Belt and the Marriage Rings of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 14 (1960): 1-16, p. which mentions a 6th- or 7th- century carved wedding ring (with representations of Christ and Mary) at the British Museum.

Note that according to Jan Baptist Bedaux, "The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait" Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 16 (1986): 5-28, n29, men started receiving rings themselves during the wedding ceremony only in the second half of the 19th century.

On the Jewish use of the wedding ring, even in the early Middle Ages, Kenneth R. Show, "Marriages are Made in Heaven: Marriage and the Individual in the Roman Jewish Ghetto," Renaissance Quarterly 48 (1995): 445-491 directs me to Benjamin Klar, ed. The Scroll of Ahimaaz (Repring, Jerusalem, 1974). For Jewish wedding ceremonies more generally, see Samuel E. Stern, Sefer seder 'erusin ve-niśśu 'in le-rabboteinu h-ri'shonim Bnei-Baraq, 1990.


Karl Steel said...

Nicholas I's Responsa ad Consulta Bulgarorum (866), available in translation here bears witness as well to the early use of the ring in Xian marriage ceremonies (see p. 235).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

An adequate report, I think. Shows some promise for future research success.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Though I'm thinking that the vast majority of medieval marrieds, regardless of faith, did NOT wear rings. It looks like they were gendered: only women were potential bearers. Then, for those who could afford them, this jewelery looks mainly ceremonial. For most people (I am guessing) a ring fashioned of metal wouldn't have been the best expenditure of resources ... so I'm thinking, nice tchoke for those with the cash, but nothing like a materialization of marriage itself as these bands have become now.