The Guelph Treasure's Impact on American Medievalism
by Renata Francesco
Barely one year after the great stock market crash of 1929, forty-two reliquaries, altars, plaques, crosses, and other devotional objects were transported from Germany to the United States of America for a traveling exhibition that drew record-breaking crowds. This trove was known as The Guelph Treasure. Purchases of individual pieces from the hoard by prominent Americans such as William Mathewson Milliken, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, marked a shift in the priority given by American art museums to medieval collections as well as an uptick in public interest in medieval works. The blockbuster exhibition of the Guelph Treasure was one of the first national opportunities for art museums to collect individual medieval works from a larger collection in order to showcase a particular narrative of the Middle Ages in their own galleries.
Treasures of the Welfenshatz
The Guelph Treasure or Welfenshatz refers to eighty-two religious objects made between the tenth and fourteenth century that were owned by the House of Welf. This cache was particularly strong in German enamel work and goldsmithing, as evident in pieces such as the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude and its two accompanying gold crosses. Historians have been able to attribute their commission to the Countess Gertrude through inscriptions on both the crosses and the portable altar, the former indicating “that Gertrude dedicated this for the spiritual welfare of her husband, Count Liudolf of [Branschweig],” while the latter carries her name without further details. Liudolf’s death in 1038 indicates that the two crosses were made between 1038 and 1077, while the inscription on the altar likely refers to the younger Gertrude, granddaughter of the Countess, who lived until 1117. Both works showcase a striking mastery of gold cloisonné enamel techniques and feature identical gold filigree foliage. The bodies of the two crosses are shrouded in a “shimmering garment” of thin gold plating, and while the enamel elements of the crosses themselves were possibly purchased from elsewhere the crosses themselves were likely carried out in a special atelier that worked for Countess Gertrude. As explained by Otto von Falke in his catalogue of the original works comprising the Treasure, the Portable Altar has been attributed to the Reichenau-Trier School of art and linked to the gold altar housed currently at Paris’s Musée de Cluny. The Portable Altar further uses gold cloisonné enamel in a manner similar to the crosses, acting as “a proof that at the place of its origin cloisonné enamel must have been indigenous, and at the same time it shows the use of a new technique.”
From the House of Welf to Hanover
Both the Portable Altar and its accompanying devotional crosses were moved to Branschweig Cathedral after its construction was completed by Henry the Lion between 1173 and 1195. After the altar and crosses were reinstated at the Cathedral, Henry the Lion contributed a huge number of works to the Treasure from Constantinople and elsewhere in Byzantium, acquired on his many travels. Others from outside the Welf house also donated to the Treasure, such as members of the collegiate chapter. When Branschweog became a Protestant center during and after the Reformation, the Treasure retained esteem, but eventually was gifted to the Hanoverians in 1671 upon Braunschweig’s surrender to that house. Duke John Frederick of Hanover presented the Treasure in his Catholic Court Chapel, where it remained until it was briefly taken to England in 1803 for safe housing out of fear of French Invasion and eventually ended up in the hands of Ernst August II of the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg.
Journey to America
Ernst August II’s possession of the Guelph Treasure had occurred at a particularly difficult time for the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg—in the wake of World War I, Ernst August II struggled to fund his employees and members of his house, and this compelled him to sell the treasures. Though Ernst August was originally ordered by the provincial administration of Hanover to sell the Treasure as a whole for 2.5 million dollars, so as to keep the holdings in Germany, the sale was unable to be completed as such because of the poor economic climate. Of the eighty-five items amassing the Treasure, eighty-two were placed in the hands of four Jewish art dealers in 1930, who sold the pieces individually at minimally-publicized auctions throughout Berlin and Frankfurt. Unfortunately for the German government, the sales of the pieces as individual lots made it difficult for international purchasers to be excluded, and in 1930 William Mathewson Milliken, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchased six pieces for $200,000. Milliken’s acquisitions of these works drew considerable attention not only from his colleagues at the Cleveland Museum of Art but also from galleries, museums, and the general American public. Plans were quickly set in motion by the four original dealers to tour remaining pieces from the Treasure across the United States in the hopes of selling more of the collection, starting at New York City’s Goldschmidt and Reinhardt galleries from late November to late December of 1930. This collection was valued at over $5 million dollars, and after its successful three-week display in New York the collection joined Milliken’s previously-acquired works at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Between January 10 and February 1, 1931, Cleveland’s showcase of the Guelph Treasure drew over 77,000 visitors from across the country: “No single art event,” Milliken wrote in his bulletin on the Guelph Treasure’s CMA exhibition, “has ever attracted such universal attention. It is as if the cathedrals of Hildesheim or Bamberg, Mainz or Limburg had been transported to this shore.”
American Medievalism and Public Fascination
The American public’s fascination with the Guelph Treasure was due not only to the luxury of the works on display, described in explicit detail by numerous publications, but also to an intense fascination with medieval Europe that had entered the American public consciousness in the country before the Treasure’s arrival to the country. The American Gothic movement of the 1840s derived from a taste for Gothic motifs in architectural ornament, such as tracery and pointed arches of innately ecclesiastical structures from the 13th century on. Such ornamental elements were believed to have roots in an “authentic, Teutonic style, gradually tamed and civilized by pious Germanic Christians of unspecified denomination.” Industrialist giants readily embraced Gothic architecture because of its apparent Teutonic origin, and as the style grew in popularity it became increasingly accessible to urban and rural middle-class America through pattern books containing floor plans, cost estimates, and suggestions for decor. “Indeed,” writes Robin Fleming, “they provided blueprints for an entire domestic life fashioned along medievaling lines.” The ties to Christianity inherent in the American Gothic movement’s fascination with medieval Europe further manifested an association between this architectural style and notions of “self-improvement.” In a parallel development, medieval figures began to enter American literary and popular culture as a way to criticize and reframe modern cultural trends.
The eventual emphasis on collecting and showcasing medieval work further developed this interest in the Middle Ages with museums. The sale of pieces from J. P. Morgan’s collections to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Henry Walters’s museum especially underscored this piqued interest from museums in amassing more medieval works. The exhibition route of the Guelph Treasure was embraced by museum directors and private collectors as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for acquisition, and in 1931 Milliken himself was able to purchase three more pieces including the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude and Two Crosses through this exhibition route. As the treasure travelled from Cleveland to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, over half of the forty-two total works were purchased by museum directors and private collectors. In this journey, however, the collection lost its cohesiveness. The Cleveland Museum of Art, for instance, refused to allow their acquisitions, which made up nearly one-tenth of the full collection, to leave the museum, and as more individual pieces were purchased from museum to museum the exhibited Treasure diminished in size to the point where the Fogg Museum at Harvard eventually refused to exhibit it. The original dealers especially struggled with these developments. The original intention of touring the Guelph Treasure throughout America was to entice museums and collectors to view the entire collection or at least clusters of related objects as prospective purchases. But the Great Depression took a toll on the buying practices of museums and private collectors. Instead of American collectors investing in ensembles of objects to fill their mansions as J. P. Morgan and others had done during the Gilded Age, curators chose to take only a few significant pieces at a time to convey general narratives of medieval European art. Even though the majority of the forty-two works were purchased by either museums or private collectors, the prices they fetched were far lower than their original dealers had anticipated. At the end of the national tour the remaining unsold works returned to Germany. Ultimately, despite the Treasure’s immense pull in the United States, the German dealers could not recover their losses and eventually were forced to sell the remainder of the treasure to the Prussian State in 1935.
The Guelph Treasure Today
The luxury of the Guelph Treasure and its outstanding reception in the United States underscores its role as both an occasion to enhance public appreciation for medieval art and an opportunity for American art museums to expand their own prestige via a new mode of collecting. The Cleveland Museum especially played a crucial role in elevating the practice of collecting medieval treasures, focusing on a few important pieces, chosen to convey a particular art historical narrative to the American public. Currently the majority of the unsold works from the Guelph Treasure remain in Germany at the Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum, though there is a current lawsuit against the German government and Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation from the American-born heirs of the four Jewish dealers who had owned, loaned, and sold the works. The claim is that the final 1935 sale of the Treasure was a coerced due to Nazi-driven sentiment within the Prussian government. In this case, the American art museums that made their initial purchases in 1930 and 1931 still possess these works, showcasing them as central pieces in their more expansive collections of medieval work to this day
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