Visiting the Cloisters Museum always makes me think vaguely of the Bride of Frankenstein: beautiful but cobbled together from parts of many different bodies. The museum was constructed in the 1930s from the remains of a number of French and Spanish monasteries which were dismantled, shipped across the Atlantic, and reassembled in a new form on an elevated spot overlooking the Hudson River in northern Manhattan. As a museum space, the Cloisters was not intended to “replicat[e] any one particular medieval building type or setting, but rather designed to evoke the architecture of the later Middle Ages.”
Yet since it’s a museum of medieval history that’s built out of the stones of a number of western European monasteries—since it’s called “the Cloisters”—the museum can’t help but promote the assumption that a certain kind of medieval Christian experience was a universal one.
Which means that visiting an exhibition about medieval Jewish history there is a very particular kind of experience.
For centuries, a wall in a house in Colmar, a small French city on the banks of the River Rhine, concealed the most precious possessions of a whole family: coins, brooches, rings, a belt, gilt buttons. The so-called Colmar Treasure was likely deposited there for safekeeping by an unknown Jewish family in the mid-fourteenth century, a family who for some reason—the historian’s imagination can supply many, none of them immediately pleasant—never returned to reclaim their belongings. It was only in 1863, when workmen were renovating the building—by then a confectioner’s shop—that the cache was rediscovered.
A new temporary exhibition at the Met Cloisters brings together objects from that museum’s own collections, from the Musée de Cluny, Paris (which has housed most of the Treasure since the early 1920s), and from other French and American collections of Judaica. In bringing together these objects, the exhibition hopes to bring back to life something of the Jewish community which flourished in Colmar until the city was ravaged by the Black Death and the subsequent anti-Semitic pogroms.
I visited the exhibition as a medieval historian who is not Jewish, in the company of a friend, Anna, who isn’t a historian but who is Jewish. We were both fascinated by many of the items on display which hinted at the humanity of their former owners, like the tiny, delicate wedding ring made of gold and enamel which surely once adorned a delighted bride’s finger. It is a beautiful combination of faith and artisanal skill.
Since we’re both book nerds, Anna and I were also drawn to the fragment of an early 14th-century mahzor (prayer book which contains the liturgies for the High Holy Days) which almost certainly once belonged to the Jews of Colmar, and which partially survived the destruction of its community because it was used as part of the binding of a late 15th-century Christian theological text. The mahzor was written in a clear, firm hand, the text enlivened by a drawing of a bird with red and green plumage.
The individual items were often beautiful, and always intriguing. And yet I found myself standing in front of one of the exhibit cases, feeling ambivalent. “What do you think?” I asked Anna.
“Honestly?” she replied. “This is giving me anxiety.”
The exhibition’s relatively small size adds to its poignancy: no matter how engaging some of the individual objects are, there’s no escaping the fact that all that remains of a whole family’s life could fit into a box easily carried by one person. Nothing else about them is recoverable, not even their names. Whether because of plague or pogrom, this “treasure” is really the echo of a centuries-old tragedy.
It’s understandable that the curators would feel the need to bring in additional objects to juxtapose with the Colmar Treasure, artefacts which could provide the broader context and clarification needed by those museum visitors who—like me—are not from a Jewish background. It’s also understandable that some of those objects would be made by or for Christians, given the varying survival rate of items from the Middle Ages.
But the ratio seemed skewed in favour of Christian(s’) objects, and the demarcation between the various groups of objects wasn’t always immediately obvious. Maybe that was part of the point. After all, it’s not possible to tell the story of the emergence and eventual extinction of the Colmar Jewish community without mentioning their Christian neighbours, and the archaeological record rarely allows us to neatly label an object “Christian” or “Jewish.”
Yet it seemed like it should have been possible to tell the story of the Colmar Treasure in a way which amplified the voices of medieval Jews—or even to truly dedicate a space to telling that story within the Cloisters. Anna and I spent a little too long being confused over a display case of medieval glass before realising it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Colmar Treasure: it simply shared the same, long room. As you can see from the picture above, there was no boundary between the permanent exhibits and the temporary exhibition.
A corner of a room might be a step up from a hole in the wall, but surely there was scope for more? Or is this the best that a museum made, like Frankenstein’s Bride, from fragments of only certain pasts can do?
“The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy” exhibition runs until January 12, 2020 at the Met Cloisters.