Walters Art Museum exhibit 'Feast for the Senses' immerses visitors in medieval Europe

At the Walters: Life in the Middle Ages, in all its loud, rough, racy, sweet and pungent glory.

The crowned Virgin in red is surrounded by so many angels playing musical instruments that the racket must have been deafening.

In the lower right corner of the painted panel, the figure pounding away on a keyboard looks a bit like a modern-day rocker. Around and around Mary the angels swirl, blowing away on trumpets, strumming harps and mandolins, sawing at the violin. There's a hurdy-gurdy, a bagpipe and a snare drum. Even the infant Jesus enthusiastically shakes bells that he holds in each tiny fist.

The black demon crushed beneath Mary's heel — who doubtless wishes he could cover his ears with his wings — doesn't stand a chance.

The 15th-century oil painting "The Glorification of the Virgin" is one of about 100 exuberant artworks that go on display Sunday at the Walters Art Museum, exploring the role of sensory experiences in the Middle Ages.

"We live in a society that's saturated with images," says exhibit curator Martina Bagnoli, who has been working since 2012 to put together "A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe."

"But images aren't the only way we know the world," Bagnoli says. "To really look, we need all our senses, not just our eyes. We need our noses, ears and hands."

That's a curious statement for a museum curator to make. Bagnoli oversaw the Walters' medieval art collection until she left in 2015 to become the executive director of the Galleria Estense in Modena, Italy. Images are her whole life.

But the more Bagnoli immersed herself in the culture of the late Middle Ages, the more she realized that every activity from carving meat to saying the rosary was celebrated as a full-bodied experience that wasn't limited to just one or two senses.

She assembled 100 paintings, tapestries, carvings, illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows from the 12th to 15th centuries that speak to her theme. But she didn't stop there. The Walters, Bagnoli decided, would introduce visitors to the sounds and smells of the Middle Ages.

If visitors prowling through the galleries think they hear the faint chime of bells, it's not their imagination. In the Middle Ages, Bagnoli says, bells were a signal for everyone who heard them clang to stop what they were doing and think about God. They often were hung on children's beds to ward off evil spirits

In another part of the gallery, the spicy odor of incense lingers in the air. Across the way, browsers are invited to finger the beads of a rosary. It releases the whiff of something not unlike black licorice. Could that be myrrh?

"It was a challenge to try to figure out how to engage visitors without relying on sight," Bagnoli says, acknowledging that people come to museums because they want to look at things.

"It was also a challenge, because you can't go around letting people lick the works of art. But I think we managed."

Of course, Bagnoli made sure there's plenty to look at. About a third of the show is drawn from the Walters' collection, which is acknowledged as having the third-best holdings of medieval art in the nation, after New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum, according to the Walters' director, Julia Marciari-Alexander. (She adds that the Morgan Library's holdings of medieval manuscripts exceed those of the Walters.)

But the remainder of the items on display came from such international museums as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Vatican Library and Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum.

"The Walters' collection is so good," Bagnoli says, "that I just needed to do a little bit of shopping around in the world to make the show complete."

"A Feast for the Senses" was co-sponsored by Florida's John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The show will open there after it leaves Baltimore.

Bagnoli's exhibit "is an opportunity to start thinking about the world of the Middle Ages in a completely different way," Marciari-Alexander says.

During the later Middle Ages, Bagnoli says, there was a seismic shift in people's attitude toward sensual experience. Previously, the Roman Catholic Church had regarded sensory pleasures with deep suspicion. The things of this world with their exquisite tastes and aromas were thought to entice humans away from their primary task of worshipping God and preparing themselves for the afterlife.

That philosophy began to change with the renewed interest in the 13th century in Aristotle, who considered the senses tools for understanding.

"The late Middle Ages was a culture attuned to sensation," Bagnoli says, "not just to feel sensation but to understand and experience it as an intellectual abstraction."

That sounds positively modern to contemporary museum-goers. But Bagnoli says for medieval people, the senses also had a moral dimension. Blindness was thought to be the symptom of the rejection of God, while the stench of rotting flesh signified corruption.

Dead saints, in contrast, were said to smell like roses, while reciting long cycles of prayers was supposed to generate a sweet taste in the mouth that indicated God's presence.

One of the first objects that viewers see after entering the show is a fascinating 14th-century diagram of the human brain on loan from the Cambridge University Library.

In the schematic drawing depicted in "Trilingual compendium of texts," a bearded gent gazes off to the viewer's left. The artist opens up his skull to sketch what were thought to be the five chambers of the brain: two for sensory perception, two for imagination and cognition, and a fifth for storing memory.

In the medieval mindset, Bagnoli says, not all senses were created equal. Sight was considered to be the most elevated and superior because it was thought to be the least corporeal, while touch (no surprise) was relegated to the bottom of the scale because it requires physical contact with the object being fondled.

On the other hand, physical discomfort was thought of as a way of celebrating the union with the divine. In particular, medieval men and women were encouraged to meditate on the five wounds that Jesus was thought to have suffered during the crucifixion.

The British Library has lent a 4-foot-long, 15th-century parchment scroll to the exhibit that is "decorated" with images of the five wounds that are interspersed between prayers and incantations. A text near the end of the "Roll with magic figures and the Five Wounds of Christ" explains that carrying the rolled document would protect the bearer from harm — particularly from the pain of childbirth.

"We think that when women were in labor, they might have draped the scroll over their bellies," Bagnoli says.

The conflation of touch and spirituality not surprisingly took on erotic overtones that could blur the boundaries between the sacred and profane.

Consider, for instance, the small black-and-white print called "The Lactation of St. Bernard." The engraving, which shows Mary squeezing her bared breast in one hand, was made in the late 15th century by the anonymous Dutch engraver known as The Master of I.A.M. of Zwolle.

"Some people think this is a little creepy," Bagnoli says. "The Virgin is squirting breast milk into the poor saint's face."

In reality, Bagnoli says, the engraving illustrates a famous medieval story about the 12th-century monk Bernard of Clairvaux. After spending many long hours on his knees before Mary's statue, the legend goes, the holy man received a drop of the Virgin's milk as a sign that God was transferring to him divine wisdom.

"That's why the milk is going not to the saint's mouth but to his head," Bagnoli says.

A 15th-century woodcut on loan from the Vatican Library called "The Bride and Christ" is set in a bedchamber and features the adult Jesus lying down with his mother, their limbs entwined.

It's difficult not to leap to unsavory conclusions. But as the wall text explains, the illustration isn't blasphemous. Instead, it likely represents the union of the Catholic Church (as personified by Mary) with Christ. That relationship, Bagnoli says, often was described in medieval days as a marriage.

"It was a spiritual metaphor that was depicted in somatic terms," she says. "Religious art treated the senses as the gateway to the soul."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe" runs from Sunday through Jan. 8, 2017 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. Curator Martina Bagnoli will lead a panel discussion of the role played by the senses in medieval culture at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets to the discussion cost $10 but are free for museum members.

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