One need not travel far to see where Professor of Art History and Art Elina Gertsman found inspiration for her new book, The Middle Ages in 50 Objects (Cambridge University Press, 2018). All of the 50 pieces that she and her co-author, Barbara H. Rosenwein (Loyola University, Chicago), explore in the book are right in our neighborhood: in the collections at Cleveland Museum of Art.
But the book serves as more than just a guide to what you can see at the museum (after all, while each of the pieces exists in the museum’s collections, not all are on display). Rather, Gertsman and Rosenwein weave a story of the medieval period through the objects from the European, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds.
“We tried to knit entire worlds around those topics: a blood jasper calyx allowed us to discuss medicine and magic as well liturgy and devotion, while a Khurasan incense burner helped us explore not only religious culture but also literary discourses of the transforming Muslim world. Soldiers and noblemen, merchants and officials make their entrance, too—there can be no discussion of devotional behaviors without politics, or religious worship without economy,” Gertsman explained. “The objects made for the rich are frequently the things that were kept and cherished over time, but we have made sure to include non-elite objects as well—a pilgrim’s flask, a soldier’s helmet—as well as objects seen and used by different classes concurrently.”
As she explained, the project allowed Gertsman to highlight what particularly intrigues her about medieval art—especially “the strange, the striking, the unexpected.”
Gertsman and Rosenwein considered writing such a book even before Gertsman came to teach at Case Western Reserve University. “When I moved to Cleveland and had a chance to really study the museum collection, it became clear that to not write such a book would be a crime,” Gertsman said.
Part of what drew Gertsman to Case Western Reserve was its close proximity to and affiliation with the museum, which has extraordinary medieval art collections. In addition to the chance to explore those collections, she also teaches in the CMA’s classrooms and galleries through her department’s joint program with the museum, and collaborates with the museum’s curators—an opportunity she considers a “dream.”
Gertsman is now in the midst of working on several other ambitious projects. Among them is a book on medieval concepts of absence and emptiness, supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, to be published by Penn State Press, and a project on pre-modern abstract art, for which she and colleague Vincent Debiais, of the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, recently won a $20,000 grant from the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation.
Their collaborative project, titled “Abstraction Before the Age of Abstract Art,” will explore abstraction—a concept usually thought to be rooted in modern and contemporary art—as a phenomenon that was developed throughout the long Middle Ages.
Among their several collaborative activities is the development of an internet-based platform for images of abstraction in medieval and early modern art; a series of workshops in France and in the United States; and two public lectures. Ultimately, Gertsman and Debiais hope their collaboration will spark a strong and enduring connection between their respective institutions.
Get to know Professor Gertsman more in this week’s five questions.
1. What do you like most about Cleveland?
My husband and I really love the ease of access to fantastic places—Severance Hall (our son’s favorite), Holden Arboretum (our dog’s favorite), Playhouse Square, and my beloved Cleveland Museum of Art. The art scene is fabulous, and so is the music scene.
2. What are hidden skills or talents you have that most people would be surprised to know?
I dabble in painting; I am a published fiction writer and poet; and I can make a mean apple pie.
3. Who is the best teacher you’ve had throughout your education?
I had an extraordinary teacher of painting in my art school in Estonia, Yuri Ivanovich Mosenkov. He was exacting, hilarious, warm and empathetic, with a mordant sense of humor. Completely unconcerned with money, or prestige. Inspiring. Teachers like him come along once in your lifetime.
4. What moment in history do you wish you could have experienced firsthand?
This changes all the time, but at the moment it is one of the revolutions: the Russian Revolution of 1917 or the French Revolution of 1879. I guess I have political dissent on my mind these days.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The intellectual stimulation I get from teaching wonderful students and meeting colleagues in different departments, some of whom have become lifelong friends, I hope. And, of course, our department’s collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art.