From the Sacred to the Secular, Relics Shape the Gardner Museum

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum houses a diverse collection of visual art and archival objects that spans eras and cultures. While many visitors may flock to the museum for a glimpse of the well-known works of Matisse, Michelangelo, Raphael, and others, the galleries also contain personal objects Gardner collected throughout her life. These objects, some of which were gifted to Gardner by acquaintances and loved ones, serve as relics honoring her life and legacy.

On Saturday, the museum held a lecture in its Calderwood Hall entitled “From Saints to Celebrities: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Relics of History.” The lecture was designed to accompany the Fra Angelico: Heaven on Earth exhibit currently on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Nathaniel Silver, associate curator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Casey Riley, assistant curator at the Boston Athenaeum, spoke on the topic of relic collecting through the lens of the museum’s collections and Gardner herself.

Silver’s speech centered around the collection of sacred reliquaries, specifically the reliquary of The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin by Fra Angelico. In 1897, Gardner and her husband purchased an assortment of late medieval and early Renaissance reliquaries from an art dealer in Munich. These works are less known than the Angelico piece but served the same purpose for sacred objects, according to Silver.

“Their containers, called reliquaries, serve to enshrine such relatively invisible contents and glorify them with precious materials like gold, silver, and rock crystal,” he said.

Throughout the ages, relics have served an important purpose in public life. Silver gave the example of French monarch King Louis IX distributing thorns from Christ’s crown of thorns to his allies as a symbol of allegiance.

Because of their role in the public sphere, relics tend to transcend the boundary that separates the sacred from the secular, making them prized among collectors for more than their aesthetic value.

“Collectors have long coveted important reliquaries as much as the faithful venerated their relics,” said Silver.

For her part, Gardner pursued The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin, which is “at the heart of the current exhibition.”

Silver delved into the details of how the reliquary came to be in Gardner’s possession, including the modifications it underwent in the centuries after its creation between 1424 and 1434.

“Excavation revealed several campaigns of decoration,” he said.

Gardner purchased the piece in 1899, making it the first Angelico work to be housed in the United States. Shortly thereafter, the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard art museums, and private collectors began to acquire other works by the famed artist.

The Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin became the first Angelico in the United States, and set a new standard that other museums were quick to follow,” said Silver.

The second half of the lecture was given by Riley, who focused her speech on the Gardner Museum as a “home for relics,” and thus itself a reliquary.

“To walk through the courtyard and galleries of the palace is to enter into a state of wonder, to be captivated by the extraordinary beauty of the collections as she arranged them,” she said. “Isabella’s handwork—her touch is on every surface.”

Drawers, bookshelves, walls, and vitrines of the museum are filled with remnants of Garner’s life and passions.

“The objects that she assembled for us within the museum form a story of her life through things,” said Riley. “The things that she touched, the things that touched her, and the things that belonged to the people she loved and admired.”

Tassels from the bed of Mary Stewart, a lock of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hair, silk cut from the dress of Mary Queen of Scots, a cigarette butt of Johannes Brahms, and a walking stick from John la Farge are all relics that serve as testimony to Gardner’s education, social networks, and travels.  

“To map these relics, from their points of origin to their home at the Gardner Museum, is to trace a web of influence, a consequential network made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it was constructed and maintained by a woman at a pivotal moment in American history,” said Riley.

Gardner also displayed more intimate relics of her personal life in her museum, such as a silver cup awarded to her grandmother for achievements in horticulture and a pendant set with a four leaf clover.

Rather than presenting these seemingly inconsequential items apart from the famous paintings, sculptures, and objects of her collection, Gardner actively chose to display her personal items alongside the masterpieces. In this way, Riley argued Gardner’s curatorial scheme was “proto feminist” in nature, as it rejected the hierarchy of high and low art forms.

“The relative ordinariness of these small 19th century objects, these mementos, in the context of these masterpieces heightens their emotional power,” she said.

Featured Image by Chloe McAllaster / Heights Editor

About Chloe McAllaster 15 Articles
Chloe McAllaster is the associate metro editor for The Heights. She is from Phoenix, AZ, and loves assuring her Uber drivers that yes, she does realize it gets cold in Boston.