“Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” isn’t much of an exhibition in terms of scale. Rounding out at twenty-four items, most of which are bantam in size and many being fragments, “Waste Not” doesn’t even merit anti-blockbuster status, squirreled away, as it is, in a side gallery. Then again, who would want spectacle-for-spectacle’s-sake at an institution as quixotic as this one? The Walters is a world-class museum and claims a healthy share of masterworks—credit goes to its founding collectors, the iron magnate William Thompson Walters (1820–1894) and his son Henry (1848–1931). Yet the appeal of the museum has less to do with star attractions than with an overriding and idiosyncratic catholicism. Does any single of work at the Walters register as forcefully as its wunderkammern: kaleidoscopic installations of paintings, sculpture, furniture, arms, armor, taxidermied animals, fossils, you-name-it–we-got-it? The Walters’ impressive array of works by Delacroix can barely muster the will to compete with such splendid excess.
“Waste Not” is of a piece with the Walters ethos; that is to say, it’s both encompassing and highly specialized. To get an idea of just how specialized, consider the source of the show’s opening quote: the third-century theologian Clement of Alexandria, not exactly a household name. In the fourteenth chapter of Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, a tract that takes heedless wealth to task, Clement advises that “riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors are not to be thrown away . . . they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.” Lynley Anne Herbert, the Robert and Nancy Hall Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, picks up Clement’s ball and runs with it, linking his notion of usefulness to concerns about “our planet’s limited resources.” (One can almost hear the public relations folks at the Walters breathing a collective sigh of thanks for a marketable angle.) “Waste Not” addresses not only material scarcity, but how that scarcity is transformed, as well as elaborated upon, because of significant changes in culture. There’s big stuff afoot in this small exhibition.
Chief among them being the advent and rise of Christianity. Among the most notable pieces in “Waste Not” is a second-century marble bust of Hercules that was re-carved some twelve hundred years later to represent a Biblical figure—who it might be isn’t certain—for the baptistery in Florence, whence it was excavated. The shift in symbolism wasn’t merely contextual. Christian artisans augmented the mythical strongman, presumably investing (or disguising) him with up-to-date spiritual significance; just how this was achieved through the relatively ham-handed re-drilling of Hercules’ hair is a good question. Elsewhere, the god Pan, he of the goat horns and hindquarters, is seen on a gold cameo over which a quote from Psalm Twenty-Six—“Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?”—was superimposed a millennium later. Other transformations we know about not through image or text, but through connoisseurship and chemistry. Turns out that a shard of blue enamel from a thirteenth-century Cross of the Mourning Virgin employed Roman glassware. As might have already been surmised, the exhibition labels, so often an annoyance, are a necessity here.
How else would we know that portraits of the original donors featured in a Dutch Book of Hours had been all but obliterated when the manuscript was acquired, down the line, by another family? Altering works of art is likely to strike twenty-first-century sensibilities as somewhat brutish, but it was standard practice during medieval times. Certainly, the role and reputation of the artist was less hallowed and, as such, art didn’t carry the hands-off imprimatur we experience today. Fair is fair, particularly for craftsmen with limited resources. In a recent interview, Herbert likened the melding of cultures and eras to the cut-and-paste verities of collage—a comparison that sounds relevant enough, but goes nowhere fast, particularly considering the comparative seamlessness of the objects seen at The Walters. We relish collage for its disjuncture. The medieval artisans re-imagining a painting or reliquary worked hard—or cleverly—to smooth out prohibitive discrepancies in style and import.
A certain degree of hyperbole is forgivable—it’s part of a curator’s job, after all—and, on the whole, Herbert has brought a nuanced sense of observation to “Waste Not”. Besides, who can resist such keen and, at times, surprising detective work? The most arresting object in the exhibition owes its existence to the want-not proclivities of medieval society, but also, in part, to dumb luck. You’d think that a 1455 edition of Aesop’s Fables, published not long after the invention of the printing press and purchased at the time at no small cost, would have its own intrinsic merits. But it’s the cover that’s the real prize—a twelfth-century page of parchment taken from an early Talmud subsequently used to protect the unbound pages of the Fables. Theory has it that the binder, having no knowledge of Aramaic, took a liking to the decorative lilt of the calligraphy and considered it choice material to work with. Whether that’s the case or not is, if not moot, then too appealing to dismiss altogether. It is within these kind of fine distinctions that “Waste Not” establishes itself as a scholarly exemplar of its kind.