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Crossroads of Culture, 400–1800 | Object Spotlight #2

Lead Curator: Christiane Gruber, Curator for Islamic Art
Curatorial Assistants: Vrinda Agrawal and Carlo Berardi, PhD Candidates, History of Art

Personal Treasures

Whether carried on the body or tucked away safely at home, one’s personal treasures often hold multiple values—including material, aesthetic, or sentimental.

What objects are precious to you? As you ponder this question, some of the things that come to mind may not have high monetary value but rather are cherished for other reasons. For example, family heirlooms and personal souvenirs are often kept as reminders of moments, people, or places. Here, we ask the same questions of the past: What did people cherish? What did they consider worth preserving?

Featuring works in an array of media—precious metal, textile, bone, and more—this case spotlights what individuals in the medieval Mediterranean may have considered their personal treasures. Each of these objects was valued in a different way, often in more ways than one. While some, like the gold jewelry piece, had material value, they were also made to look beautiful. On the other hand, some objects, like toys, were made of inexpensive materials but provided a source of amusement and awe—thus carrying sentimental value for their owners, both children and adults alike. As you look at the objects in this case, we encourage you to reflect on the values that each individual object may have held in the eyes of their owners and beholders.

From serving as personal treasures centuries ago to now forming a part of the Kelsey Museum’s collection, these objects have gained historical value as well. By studying and preserving them, we can learn more about the original contexts in which they were used and valued, as well as those individuals, both past and present, who have preserved and treasured them.

Prayer & Protection

In the medieval and premodern eras, the concepts of prayer and protection were not so separate as they are often regarded now. Objects such as holy books, pilgrim flasks, and tokens did not just bring practitioners closer to their faiths—these items also were believed to shield their owners from evil, illness, and other forms of harm.

Today, we often think of prayer—as practiced in official religion—as distinct from protection—a human urge involving talismans and folk magic. However, during the premodern period and especially across the medieval Mediterranean, these two spheres intersected and overlapped in mutually constructive ways. For example, holy books such as the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an could help guide religious devotion. At the same time, their production as material objects was thought to provide safeguard in times of illness, need, and threat—whether at home, on the road, in a ship, or on the battlefield. Produced in monumental and miniature formats, objects of prayer and protection were used in public settings and catered to private needs.

Christians, Muslims, and members of other faith communities could seek out blessings—eulogia in Greek and baraka in Arabic—in churches, mosques, saints’ shrines, sacred springs, mountains, and at pilgrimage locales scattered around the Mediterranean. Small items available at these sacred sites, including tokens, flasks, and pendants, served as both travel mementoes and containers of consecrated substances believed to protect from evil, cure disease, and, in some cases, prevent harm against pregnant women and newborn children. Whether made of clay or metal, these charms could include written invocations and figural depictions, thereby combining text and image into a powerful amalgam.

In this section, we invite you to explore Christian and Muslim artifacts that activate the intertwined realms of prayer and protection. Embark on an object-based pilgrimage to early Byzantine saints’ shrines in Syria, Turkey, and Egypt, and virtually handle a miniature manuscript of the Qur’an.

Bread: Symbol & Sustainer of Life

For thousands of years, bread has served as a source of sustenance for, and distinction among, various cultures and religions. Yet despite differences in the preparation and consumption of this staple food item, it held power as a unifying symbol in the societies of the medieval Mediterranean.

Bread has been an integral part of the human diet for several millennia. Cultures in different parts of the world have developed their own recipes and rituals of consumption since the domestication and cultivation of wheat began more than 9,000 years ago.

The Mediterranean objects presented in this display come from a range of regions and time periods. They are all connected to the making and eating of bread and therefore linked to one another. Although bread is often seen as a symbol of unity—of “breaking bread together”—the various ways in which it was made and used include divergences, even debates. For example, while key Jewish rituals use unleavened bread (matzah), the Eastern Orthodox Church exclusively uses leavened bread (prosphora) in liturgy. While not used in ritual practice, bread in Islamic cultures is highly prized, and in fact, the Egyptian Arabic term for “bread” and “life” is one and the same (al-‘aish). From quick and simple versions for everyday meals to more elaborate processes for luxurious feasts or religious ceremonies, this display highlights how bread has taken many forms as both a symbol and sustainer of life.