The Mediecal Millennium: Objects of Desire

Course Overview:

The Medieval Millenium

This course will be based primarily upon a body of objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Each object will be considered for its own sake and as a springboard for broader aspects of the attendant culture.

In the medieval objects now in the Metropolitan we are dealing with membra disjecta—bits and pieces of what was once a living society. This metaphor will lead us to consider the body to which these displaced fragments once belonged. The thousand years of the Middle Ages (c. 400-c. 1400) form a unity in which certain common themes can be discerned—the symbiosis of the body and spirit; bodies that are vile and glorious; tensions between the use of figurative images and aniconic attitudes; the co-existence of the sacred and the profane; the memory and appropriation of things past and the anticipation of things to come.

We will begin the course with a brief exploration of how the medieval treasure came to be in New York, dealing in general with the phenomenon of the nineteenth-century museum as a place for the consumption of art and continuing more specifically with the passion for things medieval ("medievalism") and the collecting habits of J. Pierpont Morgan.

We will then continue to explore these historiographic themes while at the same time following a diachronic path beginning with early Christian sarcophagi and proceeding throughout Byzantine art to the art of the Germanic peoples, Merovingian and Carolingian art, Romanesque and Gothic.

Through the web site, students have access to a body of some three hundred digital images of objects. These images provide essential information as well as related material. Through the search engine feature, objects can be studied in a diachronic way, from early to late, and synchronically to explore the themes that provide the unity of the Middle Ages. The digital images are not intended to replace the experience of responding to the objects themselves. Rather, we will bring the Museum into the classroom in order to prepare students for the visits to study the actual objects.