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The Hidden History of Recycling in Medieval Art

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Manuscript of “Two Leaves from the Mirror of Human Salvation” formerly used as a book cover (Germany, late 14th century), ink and pigments on medium weight, cream-colored parchment (courtesy the Walters Art Museum)

It’s easy to forget that a historic artifact preserved in a museum is not a static object. Before it was acquired, it went through decades of tactile use and change. The medieval period in particular, with the rise of Christianity, saw ancient Roman gods re-carved as saints, and scarce materials like gold melted down to make new objects. Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore explores this layered history in over 20 objects from the institution’s collections.

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Bible bound in manuscript leaf (Venice, 2nd half 13th century), tempera on parchment (courtesy the Walters Art Museum) (click to enlarge)

“Recycling in the medieval period was done for many different reasons, and medieval artisans were incredibly creative and crafty in utilizing what they had, or what they found, in new and surprising ways,” Lynley Anne Herbert, assistant curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Walters, told Hyperallergic. “It was a period when fewer resources were available than before, as many of the trade routes used by ancient Rome had broken down, and things were simply not as easy to come by as they had once been, so at times recycling was done out of a simple lack of materials.”

The small exhibition includes pieces where the recycling is obvious, like a 13th-century Bible from Venice that was later rebound with a protective page from a 15th-century choir book, or a gold Byzantine belt where medallions from a current emperor and empress from two centuries earlier were suspended side-by-side.

“In this case, it was absolutely intended that you should recognize the earlier pieces,” Herbert explained. “Their presence creates a literal link between the current emperor to those of the past, and through wearing this belt, the owner showed himself to be connected to them all. A bit of medieval name-dropping!”

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Byzantine belt section with medallions of Constantius II and Faustina (late 4th century), openwork gold with semi-precious stones (courtesy the Walters Art Museum)

However, the recycling is often difficult to detect, with conservators only recently discovering melted Roman gold or glass, and old manuscripts with ink scratched off from earlier writing. One gleaming work in Waste Not features a Limoges enamel of the Virgin Mary made with melted Roman glass at a time when cobalt blue glass was quite pricey, and it was easier to reuse existing materials.

“This kind of recycling is really invisible, we only know there is recycling here due to modern science and our fantastic conservation department,” Herbert said. “No one in the medieval era, except the craftsmen themselves, would have known it was made from recycled materials.”

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Cross fragment of the Mourning Virgin with Roman glass enamel (Limoges, France, 1210–20), gilded copper, champlevé enamel, glass (courtesy the Walters Art Museum)

For example, finding traces of the mineral natron in glass, which was common in the Roman era but rare by the 9th century, suggests that a Roman mosaic may have been repurposed. The presence of the white metal bismuth in a 7th-century gold fibula likewise intimates that it was formed from melted Roman gold. Herbert added that this reuse reflected the medieval view of the world, where they saw their era “as part of a continuum, built upon all that came before,” and recycling was a deliberate demonstration of that idea. Waste Not leads with a quote from the 2nd-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, who wrote:

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.

In some of the pieces, the pagan past is re-contextualized for a newly Christian society. A colossal head of Hercules from 2nd-century Venice was reworked into a now unknown biblical figure for a 14th-century Florence baptistery, with medieval drilling pocked into the finer Roman work on his beard and face. A 12th-century Byzantine ring includes an ancient intaglio of the goat-legged god Pan, wrapped by Psalm 62 in Greek: “Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?”

These are objects of both the ancient and medieval world, and today are valued for both those histories. A 1495 edition of Aesop’s Fables is just as prized for its 15th-century printing as the precious pages from a 12th-century Talmud that were reused for its binding. As Herbert said: “To me, it is this trace of creativity and resourcefulness, and the visible transformation the object has undergone, that makes medieval recycling so different and fascinating.”

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Re-carved colossal dead of Hercules (Venice, 2nd century, reworked in 14th century), marble (courtesy the Walters Art Museum)
Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling
Leaf from Beneventan Sacramentary-Missal (Venice, 19th century), ink and pigments on parchment (courtesy the Walters Art Museum)

Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling continues through September 18 at the Walters Art Museum (600 North Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland).

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