Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recycling of ancient materials in medieval art

EXHIBITION: The Hidden History of Recycling in Medieval Art (Allison Meier, Hyperallergic).
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.

I first noticed this article because of this paragraph near the end:
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.”
It's always interesting to keep track of early manuscripts of the Talmud. For more on the reuse of manuscripts in book bindings, see here and here and links.

But as I read the rest of the article, the following also caught my eye:
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.”

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.
So medieval art sometimes recycled ancient materials and the recycling can only be detected by materials-science testing. I imagine that normally the iconographic differences between medieval and ancient art save us from confusion on such matters, but I wonder if this is always true. Might there be objects that have been determined to be ancient on the basis of their material composition but which are actually medieval works that reused ancient materials? I don't know. But given the increasing reliance on materials analysis in the fields of archaeology, art history, etc., it might be worth keeping this possibility in mind.

Cross-file under Talmud Watch and Technology Watch.