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 <<