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14th century treasures from Colmar, now in the Met New York

Erfurt (Germany) and Colmar (France) are 540 ks apart, but I am mentioning the two towns together for one important reason. “Treasures of the Black Death” was the name of a 2009 ex­hibition of medieval jew­ellery at London’s Wallace Collection. The C14th jewels in the Wallace Collection come from two hoards — one uncovered in Colmar in 1863 and the other in Erfurt in 1998.

Many of the Wallace Collection art objects concerned marriage, as I expected. When else would families try to buy beaut­iful items they could not have afforded at any other time in their entire lives? The loveliest Erfurt pieces were gold Jewish wedding rings with buildings that symbolis­ed both the marital home and the Temple of Jerusalem. The arches had “mazel tov/good luck” engraved on these rings that were worn only during wedding ceremonies.

Ceremonial ring from a Jewish wedding, c1300-48
3.5 × 2.3cm, 
Photo: Musée de Cluny

Now for some important history. In the years 1348–49, as the Black Death spread from Crimea to Wes­tern Europe, up to a million people died. But rather than save as many people as possible, religious fanaticism was stirred in the wake of the plague - Christians tar­g­etted Jews, le­p­ers, Romani and other outsid­ers. The Jewish comm­un­ity in Alsace’s towns was to be held to be respons­ible for intention­ally causing Christ­ian deaths, as part of a world­wide conspiracy.  The Jews were accused of poisoning the public wells with plague!

The entire Jewish population of Colmar was massacred in Jan 1349. A second massacre occurred in Feb 1349, when several hundred Jews were publicly burnt to death in Strasbourg. And then 1000 Erfurt Jews were murd­er­ed in March 1349. Surviving Jews were sub­seq­uent­ly for­bidden to stay in their own town and were reminded every ev­en­ing at 10 PM by a cathedral bell to leave. Alsatian Jews then settled in other vil­l­ages and small towns, where many of them became cloth merchants.

Unbelievably the Colmar Treasure was re-found, largely intact, in 1863. It was assumed that some of the items were sold by the first men into the wall, before the full extent of the Treasure was formally rep­or­ted. Most of the surviving gold and silver treasures from the C14th were religious, since secular gold and silverwork tended to be re­made later according to fashion dictates of the day.

How did it happen that a small hoard of coins and jewellery bel­ong­ing to one of the town’s Jewish families was found hidden in the walls of a house centuries later? As it turned out, the house was in the mediev­al rue des Juifs, in Colmar. Anyhow The Hist­ory Blog argued that who­ever buried their most precious treas­ures probably had no chance to retrieve them because they were: 1] killed during these pogroms, 2] died of plague or 3] were expelled never to return.

jewelled brooch, 1325-48
silver, sapphires, rubies, garnets and pearls
3.7 cm sq Photo: Musée de Cluny

Fortunately for art hist­or­ians, most of the C14th gold and silver that the treasure hunters found are in the Musée de Cluny today (al­though the find was not fully published for many decades). This current exhibition brings the collection from the Musée de Cluny in Paris to New York, and presents it alongside Judaica and related works to explore medieval art history.

These art objects are now on view in "The Colmar Treasure: Medieval Jewish Legacy" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It opened last month (July 2019) and will continue until 12th Jan 2020.

double cup, 1325–50
silver, silver gilt, and opaque enamel
photo: Met Cloisers

Colmar’s medieval treasure includes coins, table ware and gold and silver jew­el­lery (rings, brooches and el­egant belt buckles). This loan from Musée de Cluny Paris allowed the Colmar Treasure to be displayed with works from The Met Cloisters and other little-known Judaica in US collections.

Although the 49 art objects being displayed are modest in size, Christians were clearly not the only C14th community that under­stood religious arts. This exhibition points to both legacy and loss in Jewish history, in the horrid days of black plague and mass murder. For me the greatest miracle was that the treasure survived at all, even as I note that the art objects were never recorded in C14th documents, nor were they discovered until 1863! Imagine if the Magna Carta had been lost in 1215 and no one knew of the charter of rights until it was accidentally located 600 years later!

My three favourite objects come from the Met’s page on exhibition objects:

A] The jewelled brooch was dated to 1325-48. Was this jewel meant to deter overly ardent suitors? According to a C13th French manual on proper deportment, brooches were intended to keep men from touching women where they should not. The central garnet was faceted to enhance its reflectivity, a practice that began around this time. It could be, however, that the brooch originally held an uncut stone that was lost, and this faceted garnet was added while the object was in private hands.

silk and linen purse, dated to the early C14th
14 x 15.2cm  
Photo: The Met

B] On a silk and linen purse, dated early C14th, two lovers stood in the shade of a tree and gazed at each other as the man proffered a large ring. Love, or formal engagement, was clearly in the air. C14th ladies’ cloths did not have pockets; rather pur­­­s­es were used to hold small, personal treasures. Col­ourful silk knots de­corated the bottom edge of this purse; others of the time had dangling silver bells. 

C] Ceremonial ring from a Jewish wedding, c1300-48. This wedding ring was the most technically accomplished example of gold­smith’s work in the Colmar Treasure. Its miniature dome and supporting arches mimiced the imagined form of the lost Temple in Jerusalem, metaphorically connecting that site to the newlyweds’ home. Hebrew letters spelled out mazel tov/good luck and set a cong­ratulatory tone, enhanced by red and traces of green enamel. The bezel was in the form of a small building instead of a precious stone, because Jewish tradition re­quired that wedding rings be made as one piece.

Germany, France and Switzerland
See Erfurt and Colmar (C)


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