Medieval Works in the Museums of the XMAC
Curator: Alberto Velasco Gonzàlez
The Middles Ages seem a long time ago to us. That’s why when we hear someone talking about the 13th century we feel a sense of vertigo, a kind of insecurity around the facts and the knowledge arising from the temporal distance. However, that’s not the only distance that determines our approach to the medieval centuries. How do we perceive the idea of physical distance in relation to the centuries of the Romanesque and Gothic styles? Can we really grasp what a long journey meant for the people of that time? Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we thought nothing of boarding a plane. Today, travelling to a far-off land is perhaps not as difficult as it was in the Middles Ages, but it still generates insecurity and uncertainty in us.
In the medieval centuries works of art also travelled accompanied by people. Their journeys involved the movement of objects, either because they were taken to be used during their sojourn far from home or —and this interests us more— because in their displacement from one place to another they became something rare and difficult to find in those distant markets. In this respect, faith and commerce were behind the arrival in the Catalan territories of many goods and artistic productions from such exotic places as Al-Andalus, Egypt, Persia or Byzantium, as well as from those nearer to home, such as Italy, France or the Southern Netherlands. Often, especially in the case of those arriving from the Orient or North Africa, objects that had no religious use in their places of origin became part of the sacred treasures of Catalan churches, often as relic holders. And that has an explanation, which we will attempt to provide with this exhibition.
Today, more than ever, the temporal distance of the centuries and a curiosity to learn how the long-distance journeys of people and objects were approached engender in us an attraction and, above all, a series of questions. This virtual exhibition will attempt to provide answers through different concepts and ideas. The intention is to speak about a series of works of art assembled in the museums that make up the Art Museums Network of Catalonia. They testify to the circulation of merchandise and objects in the Middles Ages and demonstrate that those movements brought about the arrival of a series of artistic productions, some of them quite exotic, that people found fascinating then and we still marvel at today.
FROM EAST TO WEST, VIA AL-ANDALUS
In a time of 5G, globalisation and Amazon, we need to ask ourselves why, at a 1500-year-old archaeological site in the Segrià region we find a set of objects of Mediterranean and oriental origin. Likewise, it could seem surprising to us that chess pieces made in Egypt or Persia would have been bought by an 11th-century knight and his wife and would end up as part of the treasure of the abbacy of Sant Pere d’Àger. They all have their own particular explanation, but there is something many have in common. It is that the relations between East and West have thrived since time immemorial and that this is reflected in the exchange of artistic objects and products. Catalan merchants have had consulates in Tunisia, Béjaïa (Algeria) and Alexandria since the 13th century. However, the movement was not just one way. For example, woven wool from Lleida reached beyond the farthest confines of Christianity and in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt) there is a painting donated in 1387 by Bernat Maresa, a citizen of Barcelona and the Catalan consul in Damascus. Mediterranean relations and trade with Al-Andalus facilitated the arrival of textiles and other luxury items that fascinated the Christian elites, as well as more modest works, such as the Byzantine icons that were acquired by the oligarchs of towns and cities. In this respect, we know that in 1404 several vessels arrived in the port of Barcelona with numerous icons from Byzantium among their cargos, as well as chairs, chests, carpets and other objects.
EUROPE, A LARGE ART MARKET
In the medieval centuries certain artistic productions spread en masse across Europe thanks to the trading networks. Romanesque-period precious metal work in Catalonia was responsible for important local productions, but it was also when a large quantity of low-cost but very attractive objets d’art, such as the Limoges enamels. began to be imported. The Limoges region produced crosses, reliquaries, candelabra, pyxides, ciboria, censers, book covers and croziers. The arrival of these articles in Catalonia even led to imitations being made by local workshops. It was during the Gothic period that we see the triumph of certain artistic productions with designation of origin. English embroidery, els French ivory, Nottingham alabaster, Italian chests, Flemish altarpieces and brass and copper metalwork from towns such as Nuremberg or regions such as Namur flooded the European market. At that time Flanders excelled as a grand market, which is why one of the first Catalan consulates was opened in Bruges in 1330. Thus, the powerful trading networks woven between Flanders and the Crown of Aragon allowed objects such as the exceptional brass lamp preserved in the Solsona Diocesan and County Museum to reach Santa Fe de Valldeperes.
THE EMBELLISHMENT OF ALTARS AND HOMES
Images played an important role in both churches and homes. The religious experience was channelled through the altarpieces that presided over the church altars, as well as through the smaller devotional paintings and sculptures used by the faithful in the intimacy of their homes. To satisfy the requirement for works of art in those areas it was possible to turn to local artists, or imported productions that were able to contribute exotism, distinction and perhaps even greater emotionality to the practice of piety. Some of the works in this section speak to us of the vitality of the trade in works of art between the Crown of Aragon and northern Europe as early as the beginning of the 15th century. Others, in contrast, demonstrate it through the production and export of carved altarpieces that would become centralised in the Brabant area, with numerous examples documented in Spanish territory. Certain productions, such as the small sculptures from Mechelen, were specially designed for use in the home, although when they reached Spain, many became part of church or monastery altars. The same thing occurred with the small French ivories or the Flemish pieces made in terracotta, the arrival of which is well attested in Barcelona in the mercantile documentation and the inventories of private houses.
RELICS AND ADAPTATIONS
Seen through 21st-century eyes, it could seem strange to us that inside a Christian altar consecrated in the 11th century there were relics wrapped in fabric from the Orient inside a receptacle from al-Andalus. How could it be that the mortal remains of saints —of Christian martyrs— were protected by items manufactured by non-believers? The answer is simple: the fascination of Christian society for objects of art produced by “the others”. This meant that many of the relic holders used in Catalonia in the Romanesque period, the so-called lipsanothecas, were of oriental or Andalusian origin. The Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) had a thriving market in luxury goods that favoured the arrival of, for example, cut-glass flasks made in Persia and designed to contain cosmetics. Despite such a prosaic original purpose, some of these pieces would end up being used to consecrate altars in Catalonia. A similar case would be the Hispano-Arabic textiles made with silk that were sometimes used to make liturgical garments or to protect the relics kept in lipsanothecas, as they were considered to be noble materials and worthy of protecting holy remains. In the Gothic centuries, chests lined with different materials, such as those of pewter from Cyprus, or those of bone from Italy made by the Embriachi family, went from containing prized objects from the profane world to hosting the mortal remains of saints in churches and cathedrals.