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CMA's Treasures of Heaven exhibit artfully displays human body parts

Sabrina Herman

Issue date: 1/21/11 Section: Focus
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The Cleveland Museum of Art recently closed a particularly unique exhibit, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe. The CMA always hosts shows that explore a variety of artistic styles, and this one was no different. This exhibit was especially notable for its emphasis on pieces that would normally never be the focus of an entire exhibit, as relics are smaller and are not generally popular enough to sustain an entire exhibit, as opposed to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on Abstract Expressionism that is currently running in New York. Treasures was co-curated by Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann, and James Robinson.

Walking into the exhibit hall, there were many eye-catching reliquaries to see, and the CMA took full advantage of the wide variety of interesting containers for the various bits and pieces of saints. One of the first things to be viewed was the Reliquary Bust of St. Balbina. Thought to have originated in Brussels circa 1520, it was on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in New York City. The placement of this bust shows that the CMA knew how to pique the interest of the viewer, as it is one of the first things seen upon entering the exhibit, and at one point may have held fragments of St. Balbina's skull. While reliquaries are, of course, intellectually known to possess body parts or other interesting bits of saints, the reality that at one point there was the skull of a real person inside is somewhat macabre, and definitely interesting to a viewer.

Once past that noble body (or part of it, at least), the exhibit moved between sarcophagi (such as the Garland Sarcophagus, originating from Roma circa 150 BCE) and decorative jewelry and reliquaries. Every now and then the exhibit threw in another surreal body part, such as the Reliquary of the Foot of St. Blaise (circa 1260), or the Reliquary Arm of St. Luke (circa 1338, Naples). These figures were all beautifully crafted and realistic, with the Arm holding a quill, that allegedly recorded the life of Christ. The setting and lighting of all parts of the exhibit worked in its favor, showcasing all of the intricacies behind the glass.
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