The Master of Elsloo: medieval marvel in Limburg.

Medieval exhibitions are quite rare. Exhibitions about medieval sculptures are of the unique kind. The Bonnefanten museum in Maastricht, Limburg (NL) has the honour of showing ‘The Master of Elsloo: from lonely hand to collection of Masters’, and displayed a beautiful group of more than 50 late 15th century and early 16th century sculptures.

The name of ‘Master of Elsloo’ was first published in 1940 by art history student J.J.M. Timmers. Later on, he developed an impressive career as a Professor. In 1936 he had organised an exhibition, which included two sculptures of St. Anne with Virgin and Child. He then noticed similarities in style and techniques, such as the colorful paint, the drapery of the fabric, the position of the child Jesus. He attributed them to one sculptor and named it after the village where the scupltures were originally from: Elsloo.

Statues of St. Anne with Virgin and Child, ©MedievalMonologues

For over three decades Timmers was the only one who published on this subject, before it sparked new interest. Unfortunately, the original patrons are unknown, so this gives us no information at all. Extensive research on the sculptures and woodworking techniques was done and instead of similarities, there where also a lot of small, but distinctive differences found. This ultimately led to the conclusion that ‘The Master of Elsoo’ was in fact a group, or even several groups, of sculptors, and were in business for several generations.

At the Bonnefanten museum you can see the result of the current research project, initiated in 2010 by the Belgian Royal Institution for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). Next to researching the development of the body of work, using archival and technical research, it also shows you the issues of the national border of Limburg. When first named, the body of work was limited by borders and viewed as part of the history of Limburg. However, those borders didn’t exist in the Middle Ages and is a limited perspective. The research team focussed on the Belgian, French and German influences.

You are led on a tour through the chambers, and are invited to find out who ‘the real master of Elsoo’ was. At the end of the tour you can cast your vote, and perhaps you’ll discover the truth about this mystery.

Corpus of the Crucified Christ of Ellikom, BE (restored), one of 10 of the corpora of the ‘Master of Elsloo’ sculptures. ©MedievalMonologues
Virgin and Child on a Crescent Moon, originally from Bocholt, BE (l.), and Wijlre, NL (r.) ©MedievalMonologues

While trying to unravel the mystery of the sculptors, this all sounds a bit technical and detached. It is certainly most interesting, but for me the best thing to do is to just look at the sculptures. They are of high quality wood and craftmanship, and very well preserved and restored. Most of the paint has been restored in the 19th and 20th century. In the spacious layout of the chambers you have plenty of room to admire all sculptures from up close and from different angles. They often stand alone, just for this reason.

Collection of Saints, from left (upper) to right: St. Catharine, St. Agnes, St. Helena, St. Ursula, St. Michael (without sword), St. Barbara, St. Peter, and St. Catharine ©MedievalMonologues

However, they are also out of context. Originally they were a part of a cloister, an abbey, a church, a chapel, a procession. And I wonder, how did people perceive these colourful sculptures ? Did they see only the saint they were praying to ? Or also the beauty of the sculpture ? Did they touch the sculptures? The exhibition leaves that to your -historical- imagination.

If you want to know more about the Master of Elsloo and medieval sculptures, the exhibition catalogue is a good start. It contains several essays and a complete exhibition catalogue. In general, the province of Limburg has a very rich history and offers many medieval sites, castles, ruines, churches, cathedrals to explore. Catholicism left a clear mark on the beautiful cities and countryside.

>> The exhibition runs untill 16.06.2019 at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. Visit the old city centre with beautiful streets and churches. <<

Voting booth and ballot, and exhibition catalogue

All that glitters…. is gold! The Treasure of Münster on tour.

On a beautiful spring day I was visiting one of my favorite Dutch cities: Utrecht. The city centre has lots to offer for those who are interested in medieval history, since Utrecht was a very prominent diocese in the Middle Ages. Utrecht has one of the best museums for medieval religious artifacts in the Netherlands. The Catharijneconvent is housed in a former monastery, and shows the public a great permanent collection. The museum focuses on the cultural and historical heritage of Latin Christianity. Last year they also organised some very succesfull exhibitions to open the medieval world for the public (“Magical Miniatures” and “Relics”). Currently, they are showing ‘The Treasure of Münster’.

The museum is located in the beautiful Museumquarter. Take a walk to St. Martin’s Cathedral and enjoy the city centre of Utrecht. Next to the cathedral you’ll find one of my favorite spots in the Netherlands: the Pandhof, an enclosed medieval garden with Gothic archways. When I studied in Utrecht, I used to sit here and read (or daydream). From here it is just a 10 minute walk to the museum.

Utrecht, St. Martin’s Cathedral and Pandhof, details ©MedievalMonologues

While walking to the museum I try to think about this ‘Treasure’ I’m about to see. Do I even know what it is, except that is very valuable ? Luckily, at the museum it is explained at the start of the exhibition. A Treasure is “a collection of historical art that is displayed in the treasury of the church or cathedral, and contains reliquaries and other valuable items”. In the case of the Treasure of Münster it is extremely well preserved and complete.

The exhibition in Catharijneconvent explains why the Treasure of Münster is displayed in Utrecht. Both Münster and Utrecht were part of the archdiocese of Cologne at the time. The diocese of Münster lost all of it’s medieval archives, so very little is known about the origin of the Treasure. Utrecht still has several archives, but unfortunately the Treasure of Utrecht didn’t survive. Most of this Treasure was melt down during the Iconoclasm in the 16th century. Only the actual relics where kept safe, mostly at the St. Gertrudis church. By combining the archives of Utrecht, and the Treasure of Münster in one display, a complete image is formed about why and how a treasure is built.

After the introduction your tour kicks off with a series of books, manuscripts, letters and chapters. In the pursuit of uniformity in the Latin Christian faith every church and abbey needed the same type of objects to show and use in the liturgy, and therefore needed to own a treasure. In the surviving archives we see that it is described in detail what is donated, and by whom. Donating to the church was serious business!

At the artifacts the few remaining items from the Utrecht Treasure are on display. The relics are encased in objects that are richly decorated in all the best and most expensive materials: gold and jewels, silks and goldthread, silver and cristals. No expenses were spared. I admire the creativity, very clever ways of preserving relics and display them at the same time.

Codex Ansfridus (r) – book ca. 950-1000, bookcover 1200-1400 [Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht ABM h2] ~ Photo’s by ©MedievalMonologues
A few items from the Utrecht Treasure. Details: reliquary bones wrapped in silks, a jaw bone partly wrapped in silks, and detail from St. Martin’s hammer [collection Museum Catharijneconvent]. Photo’s by ©MedievalMonologues

As the exhibition continues, you are led to a ‘grand finale’. In a dark room all the gold and silver shines brightly. My eye is drawn to the relics of female saints. I am reminded that women could play a very powerful role in religion indeed by becoming a saint. Unfortunately, you had to die first ….

One of the exhibition rooms. Sparkling treasures in the dark. ©MedievalMonologues
Details from the St. Felicitas arm reliquary, with bone displayed, Münster 150/1260 [Treasure of Münster], and reliquary statuette of St. Agnes, Münster 1520 [Treasure of Münster]. Photo’s by ©MedievalMonologues

‘Church life’ in the Middle Ages is not a particular interest of mine. Off course, you can’t study the past without studying religion. I tend to see insanely expensive religious artifacts, almost a waste of money. I can’t even imagine the value it represents today. I can only assume that the impact it left on people at the time was much, much bigger when these items were actually used in services and processions. It is indicative for the importance of the Christian faith and the power that it had in medieval daily life.

I really enjoyed this exhibition. Overall, it was not very crowded, mainly due to the beautiful weather. But also maybe of the religious character of the exhibition, that may not appeal to the general public. However, for those interested in the Middle Ages, it is certainly recommended. I think the Catharijneconvent did a wonderful job with this exhibition.

The catalogue for this exhibition is a true treasure: good quality paper which bring out the photographs really well. It even has a preface by the current bishop of Münster. Since the exhibition will travel to Germany (Aachen, Bamberg, Hildesheim, Cologne) and to the USA (Cleveland, Ohio), it is a bilingual catalogue, in English and German.

Exhibition catalogue, red. Udo Grote, “The treasure of Münster. [ISBN 978-3-402-13399-6, Aschendorff Verlag]

>> You can visit the exhibition “The Treasure of Münster” in museum Catharijneconvent untill June 10th 2019 . Combine your visit with a tour of the city of Utrecht <<