Browse Exhibits (4 total)

Communicating Meaning in the Middle Ages: Writing, Symbol, and the Space Between

This collection of objects aims to examine how meaning was conveyed via writing and the use of symbols during the Middle Ages. A number of objects contain only symbols, others contain mostly writing, and many contain a mixture of both. We’ve concluded that an object has one of these forms, depending on the meaning it aims to construct. Some objects construct a religious meaning while others serve to construct a more secular or commercial meaning; yet all objects use some degree of symbolism or writing. More interesting, is that similar symbols are utilized to construct separate meanings. For example, the use of animals are found often in religious art, but also in objects used for purely commercial reasons.

The intersection of text and symbols in one object can influence the function and meaning of both forms.While some lack words, others use them sparsely and sometimes in tandem with a symbol or two. The significance of the intersection of meaning-generating forms in these objects is open to interpretation. The intentionality behind the use of either form to convey a specific message is up for speculation as well.

However, there are specific functions that these objects served in medieval society, and an understanding of these roles gives critical insight into the worldview of the Middle Ages. For example, the degree to which writing is used in an object can give insight into its intended audience’s socioeconomic status. Similarly, symbols were likely used to transmit meaning to a broader audience given that they drew upon a larger collective understanding. This exhibit looks for the commonalities among these objects to organization them into different categories, to demonstrate that objects and images encode meaningful information via text, symbols, and hybrid forms encompassing both forms.

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Tales of Transfer: Globalization and Dissemination of Ideas in The Middle Ages

This is a gallery curated by the CB 51 section that meets on Fridays at 11 am.

This exhibition destabilizes the myth of a static, insular, and provincial Middle Ages through a diverse selection of objects drawn from different periods and places of origin. Each object on display tells it own story of cultural exchange, from the mass-produced, whose modes of construction encourage their dissemination, to the meticulously handcrafted, whose designs incorporate elements from myriad sources. In an effort to visualize the vast reach of medieval material culture, we will create a map, displaying not only the various provenances of the objects in the exhibition, but also the places these objects traveled and the locations that influenced their making.


The Symbols of Legitimacy

This collection of objects, dating from the 5th to the 15th centuries, is meant to illustrate sources of power during the Middle Ages. From the serpentine crozier to the coin weight, each of these objects served as a symbol of legitimacy, translating authority into material form so that it could be displayed and validated. These kinds of symbols became increasingly important to a society in which power was distributed from the top down, hierarchically. The design of these historical articles all added not just to their mere utility, but also to their ability to supply and evince power. This gallery gives a sense of how people demonstrated their societal significance and how objects like these so often served as the means for communicating authority.

The collection is divided into three rooms, reflecting the three main realms of legitimacy during the Middle Ages: empire, the Church, and wealth. Just as these objects are split among these institutions, so too was real power during this time. These objects, then, provide a way of understanding the power dynamics in medieval society. They connected people to God, to the state, and to their social status, all the while communicating this connection to those around them. Faces of Legitimacy shows how institutions used objects like these to validate and distribute authority.

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The Value of Travel

            Although we might imagine the Middle Ages as a static period when people and ideas did not move around much, this image could not be further from the truth. During the Middle Ages travel was just as important as it is today. The movement of people from place to place allowed for interactions between different cultures, which in turn instigated the movement of objects, ideas, and customs all over the world.

            Trading and intercultural interactions brought new ideas and luxury goods to Europe during the middle ages. Objects like the silk cloth provide physical evidence of this movement. Luxury items in the form of fashion accessories also provide evidence of trade between different regions. In addition to physical things, symbolism and ideas were transferred as well—images of monkeys and other foreign animals represented in European crafts illustrate this phenomenon.

Of course, travelling was important for people too. One of the most common reasons for travel in the Middle Ages was religion. Commoners and Lords alike would go on religious pilgrimages to various sites throughout Europe and the Middle East.  These people frequently brought religious tokens or artifacts back from pilgrimage sites.  Others simply used travel as another way to display their wealth by wearing whatever luxuries they owned. Also, as people began to travel further and further distances they required new technology, such as the astrolabe, to travel more effectively.

            From the physical evidence in this gallery, it is clear that travel and movement were important to the people of the Middle Ages for many different reasons. However, it is important to remember that more than just people and objects traveled; ideas, culture, and whatever value was associated with them also moved around during this period and all played a role in shaping the Middle Ages we study today.


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