Getting a Sense of the Middle Ages



The world of the Middle Ages goes on display in Sarasota like never before with the opening of the Ringling Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe. Created in collaboration with The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, the exhibit brings more than 100 objects and artifacts from 25 institutions from around the world—many in Sarasota for the first time—for a multisensory exploration of the sights, sounds, smells and textures populating Medieval cathedrals, courts, gardens and feasts. “It’s a real honor and a pleasure to have such extraordinary pieces come to The Ringling,” says Ringling Curator of Collections Virginia Brilliant. “This exhibition really is a rare opportunity.” Currently installed in the Searing Galleries, A Feast for the Senses opens tomorrow and will be on display through April 30.

Atmosphere is the name of the game with this mammoth exhibition, seeing the Searing Galleries partitioned and transformed into a labyrinthine but ordered expedition through aspects of daily life in the late Middle Ages. From the opening room, the ambiance runs thick, with hidden speakers piping birdsong and garden sounds into a dimly lit space dominated by a 15th century French tapestry on the wall and a plain wooden well installed in the center of the floor. On loan from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, the tapestry shows the mythical Narcissus lost in his own reflection, and visitors are encouraged to find their own visage in the well provided.

The exhibition unfolds into an expansive 10 additional rooms, each themed and exploring a different aspect of the rich sensory world of the Middle Ages. In one chamber, an assortment of artifacts from a great feast; in another, personal grooming tools or pomanders—personal perfume containers worn at the waist for easy reference in malodorous conditions. The grandest space evokes the vaulted Gothic cathedrals of the age with high ceilings, stained window reliefs and a towering crucifix at one end, the expanse in between populated with gilded religious relics. And A Feast for the Senses seeks to engage the senses beyond sight and sound, with stations set up throughout the exhibition where visitors can smell the myrrh from a rosary or even play a game of chess in the chamber of courtly love.

For all of its expanse, A Feast for the Senses is an exhibition that benefits from careful and repeat viewing. Each of the ornate tapestries contains its own story and, for the observant, many of the items on display in the show can be found depicted within them. Careful inspection is also rewarded in the numerous and sometimes downright bawdy jokes contained or hidden within an artifact’s intricate construction or tapestry’s broad scope. It’s an intriguing blend of highbrow and lowbrow that not only entertains but humanizes, reminding the viewer that not so much has changed. “It makes the Middle Ages a little more relatable,” Brilliant laughs. “We laugh at the same dumb stuff.”

A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe opens tomorrow and runs through April 30.

Image courtesy of The Ringling Museum.

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