Herbert L. Kessler on “Treasure, Memory, Nature: Church Objects in the Middle Ages” by Philippe Cordez


A Contribution by

Herbert L. Kessler
Professor Emeritus, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University



Why were crocodiles suspended from medieval church vaults? What do diverse versions of the legends of Christ’s foreskin reveal about twelfth-century eucharistic debates? Does a common thread tie together the many instances of donations of chess pieces to churches? Treasure, Memory, Nature answers these and myriad other questions raised by medieval objects—from elaborate reliquaries to narwhal teeth and coconuts—by situating them in religious, historical, political, and scientific contexts. Enriched and enlivened by fascinating case studies, this important and original study moves fluidly from the fourth century through the early modern period to provide a powerful reconsideration of recent theoretical paradigms in terms of actual physical objects. The encyclopedic book probes narrative and theological texts, inventories, and, most important, the attractive and desired things themselves to treat, among other topics, the significance of the exchange and redistribution of material and spiritual gifts, the transformation of imported artifacts through recontextualization, the relationship of objects to architectural settings and furnishings, and how the rhetoric of church “treasures” fed emerging notions of the “common good.” In so doing, Treasure, Memory, Nature provides a new paradigm for comprehending medieval artistic production in terms of materials, manufacturing practices, reception, and reuse—and discloses the ways in which medieval contexts shaped modern museums and the historiography of art.

Now Available

Treasure, Memory, Nature
Church Objects in the Middle Ages

by Philippe Cordez