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The Treasury of Basel Cathedral

February 28-June 3, 2001
Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor, adjacent to the New Greek Galleries

The medieval treasury of Basel Cathedral miraculously survived a devastating earthquake, the plague, and numerous wars, as well as iconoclasm, the Protestant Reformation, and secularization, only to fall victim to politics in the early 19th century, when it was dispersed. Period inventories identifying objects from the treasury have made it possible to locate numerous works. More than 75 of these splendid ecclesiastical and secular objects will be reunited for the first time in The Treasury of Basel Cathedral, an exhibition that will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 28. Almost none of the works have traveled before to the United States.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by Pro Helvetia, Arts Council of Switzerland.

The exhibition has been organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Historisches Museum Basel, Switzerland.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Treasury of Basel Cathedral will feature numerous spectacular vessels of silver and gold (many encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, antique gems, and brilliant translucent enamels) as well as silk textiles and objects of rock crystal, bronze, copper, and wood (including the imposing doors of the original storage cupboard). The works date from the early 11th through the early 16th century and span the late Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic periods up to the Reformation. The principal lender to the exhibition is The Historisches Museum Basel, which will provide some 30 works. Museum collections in Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, London, New York, Saint Petersburg, Vienna, and Zurich will also be represented, as will libraries, archives, and churches in Switzerland.

"Although many churches in western Europe were once adorned with precious objects, the survival of liturgical treasuries to the present day is extremely rare," commented Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. "The Basel Cathedral treasury offers exceptional insight into the devotional and liturgical practices in the Middle Ages and includes some of the greatest masterpieces of Romanesque and Gothic goldsmiths' work extant in Central Europe. Thus, it is with great pride that we present these magnificent works of art - assembled over a period of five hundred years, kept together for nine centuries, and only dispersed in the 1830s - reuniting a significant portion of the treasury for the first time."

The practice of endowing churches with precious objects was widespread in western Europe by the time of Charlemagne (the late 8th-early 9th century), arising from the conviction that only the finest materials were suitable in service to God, the Virgin, or the saints. Liturgical vessels, book covers, and reliquaries were most likely to be made of gold or silver and to be decorated with gemstones, because they were believed to be in contact with the body and blood of Christ, contain the word of God, or hold the remains of saints.

Because of the value of their holdings, few church treasuries have survived to the present day. Liturgical vessels made of gold or silver were particularly susceptible to destruction, because these metals can be reworked repeatedly. Times of war or famine posed a special threat, as vessels would be melted into gold or silver ingots that financed mercenaries or provided food for the populace. As a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the ensuing suppression of Catholic liturgy, numerous additional objects used in religious services were destroyed. Written inventories are one of the few avenues by which scholars can learn about the splendid works that once existed in medieval treasuries throughout Europe.

The treasury of the Basel minster was assembled over a period of five centuries - beginning in 1019, with the consecration of the restored cathedral (rebuilt after the destruction of the first Cathedral when the city was sacked by Hungarians in 917) and ending in 1529, when the city adopted the Protestant Reformation. The defining figure in the formation of the Basel Cathedral treasury was Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II, who, as its earliest and principal benefactor, donated several relics and other precious gifts. Members of Basel's Cathedral Chapter, bishops, noblemen, and burghers, as well as dignitaries from outside the diocese, commissioned additional works, thereby further enriching the treasury. Carried in processions and displayed on the Cathedral's high altar, such objects were a tangible embodiment of the power of the church and the status of the donors.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which will be available in both paperback and hardcover editions in the Museum's bookshops. Published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, the catalogue will feature essays on the history of Basel, the construction of the cathedral, and the history of the treasury both before and after the Reformation. The essays were written by Timothy B. Husband, Curator, and Julien Chapuis, Assistant Curator, from the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Web site of the Metropolitan Museum (www.metmuseum.org) will feature the exhibition.

A variety of educational programs will be scheduled in conjunction with the exhibition. These will include lectures and gallery talks for general visitors.

The exhibition is organized at the Metropolitan Museum by Timothy B. Husband, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.

After its showing at the Metropolitan, the exhibition will be on view at The Historisches Museum Basel, Switzerland (July 13 until October 21, 2001).


December 12, 2000

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