A collection of rings, brooches, coins, and manuscripts, now on display at the Met Cloisters in New York City, offers a rare glimpse at the life of the Jewish community of Colmar, Alsace, during the Middle Ages.
In May of 1863, workers came upon a cache of coins, jewelry, and other valuables inside the wall of a house in the Alsatian city of Colmar. While such discoveries naturally pique the interest of amateur detectives and historians alike, this one held a rare and poignant significance. The location of the house in the city’s former Jewish quarter, the age of the pieces, and — most conclusively — the presence of a Jewish ceremonial wedding ring linked the trove to a Jewish community that had lived in Colmar more than five centuries earlier, when Alsace was part of the Holy Roman Empire. This community, like many others across Europe, was obliterated when Jews were scapegoated for spreading the plague; specifically, in early 1349, the Jews of Colmar were burned alive.
Now housed at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, the trésor is among the holdings the institution is loaning out while under renovation. It will be displayed with related works from other public and private collections in The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy, which opens this month at The Met Cloisters in New York City. Curator Barbara Drake Boehm says: “I wanted to borrow it because it tells a story that our own collection can’t tell as well, about how important the Jewish community was in the world of medieval Europe. It’s a story that’s not easily told because of the perils that the community faced historically.”
The exhibition makes the story that much more compelling by lending it a personal face. Although the identity of the treasure’s original owner(s) remains a mystery — a pawnbroker is one possibility — Boehm envisions a family. The relatively modest size of the treasure, which numbers some 300 coins and 50-odd other articles, supports this hypothesis. Then there are the specific characteristics of its contents. “One of the best clues, I think, is that there are rings that date from the second half of the 13th century and rings that are well into the 14th century. Not only are their dates different, but the materials are different. The earlier pieces are gilded silver and garnet, and the later pieces are gold and gems. I think it’s a reflection that it’s the same family, and they’re doing better.”
Viewed through this lens, the items take on a touching familiarity. “There’s a piece of a pin,” says Boehm. “It reminds me of the back of an earring. You’ve been meaning to take it to a jeweler and have him solder it back together, but you haven’t gotten around to it. These sorts of touches allow you to traverse the centuries and connect with these people who lived more than half a millennium ago but really weren’t so different than we are.”
Jewish ceremonial wedding ring, ca. 1300 – before 1348. Gold, opaque and translucent enamel. Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Age. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Jewish ceremonial wedding ring, made of gold and enamel and inscribed with the congratulatory mazel tov. Intended to be worn only on the day of the ceremony, it is in the shape of a tiny hexagonal building that symbolizes both the marital home and Solomon’s Temple. “Those rings are as rare as rare can be,” observes Boehm. “But as it happens, there’s another one of roughly the same date in a private collection in New York, and we’re borrowing it at the same time. They will be side by side.”
Another piece that complements the treasure is a 15th-century book on Christian theology, notable in this case for its end paper, which features an illuminated bird and is actually parchment recycled from a 14th-century Hebrew manuscript. Although it was common practice to reinforce the bindings of early printed books with leaves from unwanted handwritten volumes, recent scholarship has yielded some surprising results. Boehm explains: “We’d long thought that the only trace of the medieval Jewish community of Colmar was this treasure. And then an amazing woman called Judith Kogel from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris realized that in the municipal library of Colmar, there are any number of books that within their bindings incorporate pages from Hebrew manuscripts from Colmar. Judith has figured out what those pages are, and she has reconstructed the library of the medieval Jews of Colmar.”
Like the treasure, the manuscripts have been pulled from the literal darkness and can now shine a figurative light on the culture and community that created them. When asked what advice she’d offer visitors to the exhibition, Boehm replies, “Look closely, and just allow yourself to think, ‘What is the history of this piece? How did this fit into somebody’s life in Alsace hundreds of years ago?’”
The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy
From July 22, 2019, through January 12, 2020
The Met Cloisters
Article published in the July 2019 issue of France-Amérique