The Colmar Treasure Review – A Jewish Medieval Legacy

Out of the ashes, a treasure survives

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When most people think of Manhattan they tend to think of busy streets, high rise buildings and frenetic energy, not a picturesque four acre park filled with trees, overlooking the Hudson River. But that lovely piece of greenery is where the Met Cloisters is located.

The Hudson River

And when most people think of the Met Cloisters they tend to picture the art and architecture of medieval Europe, not the ‘black death’, which wiped out almost one third of the continent’s population. But for a few short weeks, at least, they all come together as The Met Cloisters hosts The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy.

The Met Cloisters

The plague, or black death, is believed to have originated in Asia in the early 14th Century, wreaking havoc in China, India and Egypt. The most commonly presumed date of its landing in Europe is October, 1347, when twelve ships from the Black Sea landed in the Sicilian port of Messina. The sailors on board were almost all dead, and the rest were violently ill. The ships carrying the disease were ordered out of the harbor but by that time it was too late. In the next five years a path of devastation swept through the European continent like none before or since. Before it was over more than twenty million people were laid in the ground.

One of the reasons the disease spread so rapidly is that no one knew exactly what caused it. The panicked physicians of the times, such as they were, resorted to unknown and untested measures, such as bloodletting, which had little effect. For those with a more paranoid religious bent, however, there was a more obvious cause. The Jews.

There were many reasons why people thought the black death was the work of the Jews. First and foremost was the knee jerk inclination to blame pretty much everything bad on the Jewish nation. Also, the Jews seemed not to be as affected as others during the time the plague wreaked its devastation. (No doubt it helped that the Jews had rules of cleanliness that others did not; the washing of hands after meals and using the bathroom, for example.) Whatever the cause, Jewish towns and villages were set upon by the Christian population. Thousands were massacred and their belongings stolen. Among these was a single family in Colmar, France, circa 1348-49. Before they were massacred, however, the family managed to hide a small treasure inside their walls. It stayed there for nearly five hundred years, before it was discovered in 1863. The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy, shows some of the surviving pieces from that violent and tragic period.

The treasure is comprised of rings of sapphire, ruby, garnet, and turquoise;

jeweled and fanciful brooches;

a delicate enameled belt;

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gilded buttons;

and more than 300 coins.

The exhibition is made possible by the Michel David-Weill Fund.

Additional support is provided by the David Berg Foundation. The exhibit runs through January 12th.

New Yorkers looking to visit the Met Cloisters are advised to take the A train to 190th Street and then the M4 bus.

You can also walk from the subway if you want, but wear comfortable shoes. It’s a hike.

Photos: Tony Sportiello

More information about the Cloisters

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