Situated between New York and Washington, D.C., the city of Baltimore in Maryland appears very infrequently on the roster of the historical traveller’s must-see destinations. Although less famous than its counterparts–the Cloisters Museum and Dumbarton Oaks-however, the city’s Walters Art Museum houses a truly spectacular collection of mediaeval art. Ranging from the ancient past of Egypt, Greece, and Rome to the modern works of impressionist painters and Art Nouveau designers, the museum’s collections proudly represent an astonishing 55 centuries of human cultural achievement.
That the museum exists at all is a testament to the collecting zeal of the American industrialist William Thompson Walters. Having made his fortune in railroads, Walters (and later his son) began the task of assembling the many thousands of pieces which now fill three storeys of galleries.
Today, the complex of galleries which make up the ‘Mediaeval World’ exhibition are a lavish tour through some of the grand themes of mediaeval history: the migration of peoples, the rise of Christianity, and the endurance of ancient cultural forms.
At the opening of the 6th century, Europe was a continent dominated by tribes–the Goths, Franks, Vandals, Avars, and Huns–whose movements across and around the Roman frontier have earned the period the name ‘The Migration Period’ (in German, volkerwanderung.) At the Walters, the many cultures and commonalities are evoked through a collection of fibulae (brooches) which expressed the identities of these people on the move.
My particular favourites included this horse-shaped fibula, ascribed to the Huns:
Its form articulates the crucial importance of the horse to this nomadic people, whose ways of life and appearance were so foreign to the more settled peoples of Western Europe.
and these bird-shaped brooches from Visigothic Spain:
Moving forward in time, the galleries then present a marvellous collection of liturgical and devotional items. From Byzantine silver from Syria to a stunning rock-cut crystal crozier, these items illustrate the wealth which mediaeval individuals devoted towards religious worship.
A favourite piece here is a triptych carved in the shape of the Madonna enthroned. When the doors close, she appears to simply be a statue. When open, however, the ivory panels reveal scenes from the passions of Christ. She is a unique expression not only of Christian piety, but also of mediaeval ingenuity.
Although much smaller, the Walters’ galleries of Islamic Art nonetheless contain a number of fascinating items. Delicately painted ceramics and metal tableware chart the interplay between an Islamic insistence on floral or geometric patterning and the influence of Sasanian Persian and Central Asian figural traditions.
Representing the mutual influence exercised between the Christian and Muslim traditions in the Middle Ages is this 13th century enamel plaque, once a part of a large cross.
Although its depiction of the Virgin Mary is solidly Christian, the artist bordered the piece with ‘pseudo-Kufic’, which mimicked Arabic script for visual effect.
For its mediaeval collection alone, the Walters Art Museum deserves to be known as one of America’s great free museums, built through the energies of a single family into a space of wonderful encounters: past and present, East and West.
On the Web:
The Walters has a wonderful online portal for viewing, curating, and sharing photos of their collections online. Search by museum location, medium, and artist, assemble your own ‘gallery’ and share–most images are available under a Creative Commons license!