Exhibit on medieval recycling opens at the Walters Art Museum

Exhibit on medieval recycling opens at the Walters Art Museum

Though he lived nearly 17 centuries ago, it's easy to imagine the man who wore the fancy gold belt strolling today through the halls of Congress or, possibly, the Department of Defense. He might even have deliberately tossed his jacket back over his shoulders to let the belt's shiny surface reflect the sun.

The visible sign of his favored status — a big, whomping honorary medallion handed out by fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantius II — would have been as conspicuous as the stars on any general's shoulder. It's an impression heightened by a second decoration, an old coin from the second century bearing the image of the Roman Empress Faustina.


"This was serious name-dropping," says Lynley Anne Herbert, who curated a new exhibit on medieval recycling that opens June 25 at the Walters Art Museum.

"He was wearing the emperor's image around town. He was all blinged out, and he was completely wanting everyone to recognize who he was connected to."

The belt fragment is just one of about two dozen objects on display in a small but charming exhibit running through the summer called "Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling."

This belt fragment with medallions of Roman Emperor Constantius II and Empress Faustina is part of the exhibit “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling" at the Walters Art Museum.
This belt fragment with medallions of Roman Emperor Constantius II and Empress Faustina is part of the exhibit “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling" at the Walters Art Museum. (Susan Tobin / Walters Art Museum)

Nearly every artwork on view is an example of repurposing, from a 13th-century Limoges cross that used melted Roman glass to achieve its intense blue enamel, to the makeover given to a massive stone head of Hercules designed to transform the Greek hero into a Roman Catholic saint.

There's even a 12th-century fragment from the Talmud used to bind a 15th-century copy of "Aesop's Fables" — an example in which the covering became far more valuable than the manuscript it was intended to protect.

"Today we think we're really trendy because we're recycling to save the planet," said Herbert, the Walters' assistant curator of rare books and manuscripts. "Well, people have been recycling for thousands of years. They just didn't have little blue bins outside their back doors."

The show opens with this quote from the early Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria: "Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away."

Clement died in the early third century, long before the period showcased in this exhibit. But though recycling wasn't new in the Middle Ages, "there was something a little different about the medieval attitude toward recycling," Herbert said.

Before the Middle Ages, at the time of the Roman Empire, trade routes were built to lands as distant as Asia and Egypt. When the empire later dissolved into individual nations and fiefdoms, the old political and economic connections also broke down. For most people, the world, in effect, became a smaller place.

"It wasn't as easy to get things," Herbert said.

"You couldn't just say, 'Hey, get me a bolt of silk from the Silk Road.' It was a little harder to connect with people living in other places. People in the Middle Ages looked inward a little more."

But if people couldn't obtain new luxuries, at least the old treasures were still around.

"The Romans were the ultimate consumer empire," Herbert said. "They produced a ridiculous amount of stuff. Every time you put a spade into the ground, you found something else."

Recycling also fit the medieval mindset.


By then, Christianity was no longer the persecuted upstart religion it had been during early Roman times, and the faith had taken over Europe. Medieval people were obsessed, Herbert said, with finding symbols from the past that appeared to predict key Christian beliefs and cloak them with an air of inevitability.

Consider the 2,000-year-old carnelian cameo that centuries later was made into a silver ring with the pious inscription: "Lord, help thy servant Basil. Amen."

To modern eyes, the orange-red cameo, which shows a man driving a chariot and cracking his whip above two racing steeds, practically shouts its heritage as a Greek or Roman artifact.

But Herbert said that in the ninth or 10th century, the cameo's owner might have perceived the bearded charioteer as someone else — possibly the prophet Elijah or Jesus Christ ascending to heaven.

"The stone itself is Roman, but the ring is Christian," Herbert said. "The motif kind of crosses boundaries. It's Roman imagery that Christian and Jewish artists appropriated for their own use."

Then there's the colossal marble head of Hercules, easily twice life-size, carved in Italy during the second century.

Twelve centuries later, someone apparently decided that instead of carving a new marble statue from scratch, it would be easier to refashion Hercules into a prophet or saint.

"They drilled into his beard to make it appear curlier," Herbert said. "They also added fine lines and wrinkles to his face, which ages him. He doesn't look quite as youthful and perfect and beautiful as he did when he was first made, though maybe he looks a little wiser."

The exhibit is categorized between objects such as Hercules that were recycled for ideological purposes and artifacts reused primarily for reasons of frugality.

For instance, old books were routinely reprocessed in the Middle Ages, Herbert said, because parchment was costly and took a long time to produce. The pages of unwanted manuscripts were washed, and a new text written over the old.

Sometimes, old pages were used to protect seemingly more valuable volumes from wear and tear.

The show includes two gaily decorated leaves from a religious text titled "The Mirror of Human Salvation." After the book stopped being read, a previous owner tore out two leaves from the old book, folded them carefully, and made them into a jacket for a much smaller volume.

"When you were a kid, did you ever cut up a brown paper bag and use it to cover a textbook?" Herbert asked. "That's what happened here."

We don't know the contents of the smaller book. Prayers? Love poems? Recipes? But we know it appears to have been well-used.

"This isn't a book that just sat on the shelf and that nobody ever read," Herbert said.

Herbert pointed out a dark rectangle in the middle of the leaves. That's the part of the cover, she said, that was exposed to sunlight over a long period. That side of the jacket also has a slightly raised, relatively rough texture consistent with it having been lugged about. It's easy to imagine it slung in a knapsack, or placed open-faced on a stone bench, awaiting its reader's return.

"I want people who come to this exhibit to think of the human beings behind the objects," she said.

"A lot of people think of medieval art as stodgy and religious. They'll come to this show expecting to see a lot of pictures of people praying. It's fun to show them a side of medieval that they don't know exists."