Take a look at the first tapestry as you walk into the newest exhibition at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. It’s so lush, so full of color and life you might think you actually hear birds tweeting.
The thing is, you do. The curator of this sensual tour of medieval art, Martina Bagnoli, has designed a show that includes sound, smell and touch. In other words, this is an art exhibit that appeals to senses beyond sight. Yes, you can touch! At least once, anyway.
“A Feast for the Senses” looks at how objects in late medieval Europe stirred all the senses. Bagnoli wants these works to appeal to visitors’ senses, too.
You’ll smell the spice of incense as you pass by the stained glass windows. A bell tolls where the vessels used in worship are displayed. Push a button to hear the strains of a song written by a medieval poet as you view gifts exchanged by lovers. Touch the beads of a rosary (made for this occasion) which has a special bead filled with the exotic scent of myrrh. There’s nothing to lick or taste here but a life-size depiction of a medieval dinner party is so vivid you can almost taste the wine.
The exhibit looks at how the Christian religion and courtly life use the senses in their messages. The Church used all the senses to draw the faithful in while the royal courts’ celebrated enjoyment of the human body with a caution about temperance.
There are pieces like none other I’ve every seen. My favorite was an unusual child’s cradle designed for a small doll. It was a popular devotional item used in the 1500s in the Netherlands during Advent. Silver bells ring when the cradle is rocked.
I’m wowed by tapestries and marvel over the artistry of illustrated manuscripts. And if there are bright and shiny objects, I’m in heaven. Here I couldn’t get enough of these sensuous delights as I was drawn along through the exhibition. There are so many beautiful things, a feast for the eyes of course. But as I write this, I still hear the refectory bell … and smell the myrrh … and savor the whole experience.
There are plenty of places to sit and savor the art in front of you in the Walters exhibition. There’s even a chess set set up for visitors to play beside a wall where images from nearby Ladew Topiary Garden are screened. Did you know, chess was a game of love in medieval times?
The exhibition of 100 objects from 25 museums opens Oct. 16 in Baltimore. After it closes January 8, it moves to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota and goes on exhibit there Feb. 4 through April 30
ⓒ Text and top two photos Mary K. Tilghman
Photo of cradle and tapestry courtesy Walters Art Museum