Jewels Give Voice To A Lost Community
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Jewels Give Voice To A Lost Community

Met Cloisters show is poignant glimpse into Jewish life in medieval France.

Diane Cole, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes for The Wall Street Journal, NPR online and other publications.

Jewish ceremonial ring from the Colmar
Treasure. Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, ©RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY (Cl.20685)
Jewish ceremonial ring from the Colmar Treasure. Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, ©RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY (Cl.20685)

If France is not on your summer vacation itinerary, consider a visit to the “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy,” opening at New York’s Metropolitan Museum Cloisters on July 22. Not only does this small, tantalizing exhibit feature objects on loan from the Cluny Museum in Paris. The show’s exquisite jewelry and miniatures reveal seldom seen and little-known glimpses of Jewish life from the first half of the 14th century in the Alsatian town of Colmar, an area that is now part of France but in that long-ago era was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor.

Behind these objects also lies a tale surrounded in mystery and shrouded by calamity. In 1863, workmen at a Colmar confectionary shop situated on a street once called “Rue des Juifs” (Street of the Jews), chipped a hole into a mortared wall, reached inside and pulled out a terracotta pot filled with a collection of precious jewels, rings, a colorful brooch, decorative buttons and belt buckles, a miniature silver key, coins and other objects that persons unknown, and for reasons unknown, had concealed there in an era the workmen could not immediately determine. But by whom, when, and why?

A major clue to the original owners being Jewish is the most exquisite artifact in the cache: a gold Jewish ceremonial ring topped with a miniature rendition of the lost Temple in Jerusalem. An engraved Hebrew inscription reads “mazel tov,” for good luck.

“The ring is so beautiful, so refined,” says Metropolitan Museum’s Barbara Drake Boehm, the show’s curator and author of the accompanying volume, “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legend.” “The delicacy of the goldsmithing is extraordinary. The roof over the base of the ring is done like an open, delicate architectural arcade, with capitals and columns holding up the domed roof.” To see its complexity in full, Boehm advises looking at it from above as well as from the side. Boehm also recommends searching out a “tiny, tiny” decorative fastener on display nearby; it depicts a falconer on horseback, and its goldsmithing work is as brilliant as it is delicate.

“You might miss it, but find it and look at its amazing level of refinement, the tiniest relief sculpture you can imagine,” she says.

Sleuths should also seek out another object that points to the cache having once belonged to a Jewish family: a tiny silver key that Boehm likens to a delicate “Tiffany” key, to be worn as part of your attire, like a small accessory. The Jewish connection has to do with Jewish observance, which prohibits carrying money and valuables beyond the household on the Sabbath, as opposed to wearing jewelry, which is allowed. The key would have been used to lock up the box, which would have been kept at home. With important objects thus safeguarded, the wearer of the key could feel comfortable going outside on the Sabbath, whether to synagogue or to visit members of the community. 

As for nailing down when the treasure was hidden, strong evidence comes from the dates of the more than 300 coins inside it. The oldest coin came from 1180, with the most recent from the 1330s and 1340s. All of them are French, but the most distinctive coin is a single golden florin from Hungary from around that same time. For Boehm, this is yet another clue identifying the owners as Jews. It was in 1342, she says, that the Holy Roman Emperor began to demand that Jews residing in the Holy Roman Empire, of which Colmar was part, pay the tax of a “golden penny,” or florin — a coin just like this one. “Jews essentially had to pay protection money to the emperor every year,” says Boehm. “And that made me think that this is the coin that had been set aside for that year.”

Still, why bury the treasure — and why abandon it, never to be retrieved?

“We don’t really know the answer,” says Boehm. But it most likely has to do with the Black Death, which spread across Europe  between 1347 and 1351, and is estimated to have killed from one-third to one half of the population. Jewish communities were falsely blamed and scapegoated by their Christian neighbors for poisoning wells and causing the plague, even in communities like Colmar, where Jews and Christians had lived peacefully prior to the plague. All told, anti-Semitic mobs destroyed approximately 300 European Jewish communities, leaving between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews dead — in some cases by burning them at the stake. All these circumstances together lead to the probability that the owner of the treasure was a Jewish casualty of the Black Death, whether of the disease itself or of the murderous anti-Semitism it aroused. 

But the plague itself was unsparing, regardless of religion or social status. Another reminder of its merciless reach appears in the exhibit in the form of an elaborately illuminated manuscript from the collection at the Cloisters, “The Prayer Book of Bonne of Luxembourg.” Its original owner, sister of the Holy Roman Emperor and wife of the future king of France, also died of the plague. The exhibit also includes other illuminated manuscripts, significant objects and Judaica from the Cloisters, the Jewish Theological Seminary and several private collections.

The relatively small size of the exhibit adds to its poignancy, says Boehm. The array of jewels and jewelry on display also compel a close-up and personal look. Rings sparkle with sapphires, emeralds and garnets. A dazzling jeweled brooch is decorated with gilded silver, sapphires, rubies, garnets and pearls. And there are also odd and less familiar gems, the most unusual being the toadstone. Opaque and creamy, it is not actually a gem, nor is it from a toad, Boehm explains. “It’s actually a fossilized fish tooth,” she says, and it was believed to ward off the evil. The superstition was evidently widespread, with toadstone rings worn by “people up and down the social scale, non-Jewish and Jewish alike.”    

For Boehm, all these pieces give voice to a lost community. Most of all, she wants to “draw people in so they can see that there is a Jewish medieval legacy. … to understand the tragedy of the loss you have to feel something on some kind of gut level. And the Colmar treasure allows you to do that.”

“The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy” opens July 22 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Dr. The show runs through Jan. 12, 2020, metmuseum.org.

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