Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center

It’s not that I think art museums don’t usually do a good job displaying medieval stuff, it’s just that they tend not to focus on the things I’m interested in. So when I saw that medieval religious artefacts were on display at the Cantor Arts Center, I went mainly out of curiosity. But actually I was pleasantly surprised!

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So the focus is on medieval art as a sensual experience, and the exhibit certainly lives up to that idea, at least partly. The whole thing is done in an environment of darkened reverence; the icon at the front has a row of little LED candles in front of it to give its gold the appropriate lustre.

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There’s haunting churchy music and even incense to sniff, and it’s all there to remind you that, in the words of the explanatory text, these things were viewed in terms of “privileged liveliness” rather than lifelikeness. That’s a really good and important point — these things were not “works of art,” but were meant to be experienced as part of a particular environment. Of course, you can’t recreate that environment in a modern museum, and even if such a thing were possible, that environment would differ a lot from place to place and time to time. But it’s still a very valuable thing to do.

My one quibble with this exhibit is that the curators appear to have a funny idea of what “medieval” means. Something from the 3rd century? Not medieval. Something from the 18th century? Not medieval. Just being Russian doesn’t mean that it’s old. But there are some good medieval pieces:

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So overall I thought that was pretty good! It’s very small, but then it’s only one small part of a much larger museum. My wife and I explored the rest of the place, particularly enjoying the exhibit of female photographers from Iran and the Arab world. But the highlight of the rest of the place for me was the bit about the Stanford family. I had not known that Leland Stanford, Jr — who died at 15 and inspired his family to found the university and so on — was a keen antiquarian. In fact, in the weeks before his death he met Heinrich Schliemann and he was intending to found an archaeology museum in San Francisco, which is pretty good for a teenager.

Oh, also, the Stanfords owned a “Megalethoscope,” which apparently is a thing that allows you to look at photographs?

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Or destroy all the civilised planets. I forget which.

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Trip report: Sensual Splendor at the Cantor Arts Center

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