Saturday, April 05, 2008

More living color

I noticed my "travelogue" was getting a bit lengthy, and I still had more to say, so here's the continuation.

I went to Mass on Easter morning in the Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral), with the Cardinal Archbishop presiding (this being an opportunity that doesn't come along every day!). It was, as one would expect, quite beautiful, and also FREEZING cold. I don't know whether the building simply doesn't have heat (after all, none of them did in the Middle Ages) or whether it simply can't be used at the moment because of current construction. (And I didn't have that essential medieval winter accessory, a brazier, with me ;) My German isn't good enough to follow much of what the Archbishop said, but I believe he did apologize for the cold.

But since this was, after all, mainly a research trip, I spent the afternoon of Easter Sunday in a museum.

I was very happy with my visit to the Schnütgen Museum, which is nicely settled into its new home in another former church (Saint Cecilia), though they are still working on the attached new building that will eventually give them a much expanded display space.

As it is, it is an utterly amazing place. (There's a photo on their web page in the link above.) Dozens of medieval wood sculptures, many rescued in the late 19th century from church attics and basements, sit right out in the open where you can practically walk right up and put your nose against them to see all the details (though no doubt state-of-the-art security alarms would go off if you actually touched them). Since I was there on Easter Sunday afternoon, I very nearly had the entire place to myself -- I think I saw perhaps four or five other visitors in three hours.

Down in the crypt -- again, the very last display room -- I was glad to see the rosary displayed that I had particularly hoped to see. It's the chain of seven skulls from 16th-century Mexico that I discussed in some detail a couple of years ago.

It's really a shame that the museum hasn't published big, gorgeous color pictures of this rosary and all its parts. The only photos I could find when I wanted to talk about this earlier were black and white catalog photos from the Marburg Foto Index (informally known as "bildindex") and they are not very clear. This piece is also featured in the 2006 exhibit catalog Zum Sterben schön : Alter, Totentanz und Sterbekunst von 1500 bis heute (which translates roughly as "Beautiful Death: Age, the Dance of Death, and the Art of Death from 1500 to today"), but again, there's only one photo of the whole string, and not a very large one.

There's more than one reason to wish for big photos. As you'll remember if you read the previous series, each of these skulls opens to reveal two tiny panels, each showing a religious scene carved in boxwood, a very dense wood that allows very fine detail carving. You can see the Marburg photos of a few of these scenes here. (Keep in mind that each skull is perhaps an inch high!) I did not have time before I left to slog through a complete translation of the discussion of these scenes in Zum Sterben schön, but from a quick look at it, I suspect I disagree with some of their conclusions as to what these scenes represent.

The other reason I wanted some better photos is purely artistic. There is an entire genre of these tiny devotional boxwood carvings. One of their outstanding features is that many of these scenes have a distinctive background, painstakingly constructed from bits of iridescent blue feathers. This in fact is one of the clues that leads art historians to conclude that these pieces came originally from Mexico, where native traditions such as featherwork combined with the new arts introduced by the Spanish to produce some astonishing works of art.

Black and white photos just don't convey this adequately:

Skull 01 black and white

But because I was there in person, I was able to get a whole series of photos that let us admire these now in all their glory.

Skulls in color: 2

Skulls in color: 3

Skulls in color: 4

Skulls in color: 5

Edited to add: As a bonus, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently featuring an exhibition of Native American feather work called Radiance from the Rainforest: Featherwork in Ancient Peru, which is well worth looking at, even just the online images.

Pictures from Köln:


In living color
More living color
A Joos van Cleve altarpiece
Details, details

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