Staff Writers Elaine Lloyd and Rory Collins joined a guided tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval section.

Barnard alum and Sarah Lawrence Professor Gillian Adler regularly treats students from her alma mater and current institution to guided tours of the medieval section at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the president of the New York Medieval Society and scholar of Middle Ages Literature, Adler is the perfect guide to such a diverse and underrated topic in the art world. The tour itself was about an hour long and covered the full span of the medieval art section of the museum, with Adler asking guiding questions to each student in order to keep her audience engaged and actively learning. A quick shoutout is warranted to the Barnard English Department, specifically Professor Peggy Ellsberg, as she is the one who offered this free opportunity to the students in her classes as well as any friends they may have who are interested in old English literature and art history.

After arriving at the Met from the pouring rain outside, Adler gathered a group of aspiring young medievalists together and handed out (adorable) Medieval Society notebooks before beginning the tour in the Byzantine section. Our first glimpse into the world of medieval art was through a tenth century illuminated manuscript. Written in Greek, the book was laid out with a singular page open for viewing in order to preserve the other delicate pages. This Byzantine manuscript of the Gospels has a surprisingly tedious process compared to the way we create books today: the “paper” inside is actually vellum, a stretched animal skin ranging from cow, to lamb, to llama that was then shaved down to be written on. An entire team of craftsmen were needed to create this delicate product, performing tasks such as binding, scribing, and creating illuminations (the medieval term for illustrations). Adler explained how important it is for the museum to flip the pages in each manuscript often in order to shield them from the dangers of light. This particular manuscript rested on Matthew’s author page; the illumination depicted the writer sitting down to create each of the pages that lay ahead.  

We moved on from the manuscript to begin a further discussion on medieval sculpture, specifically the reliquaries of saints such as Saint Christopher, Mary Magdalene, and others that hold importance to the Christian church. Adler explained to the tour group that a reliquary is a container that either currently or used to hold holy relics, which are defined as the “mortal remains” of a saint. These remains can range from an actual body part of the saint, such as teeth or hair, to abstract objects that had just been important to that person’s sainthood or had come in contact with the saint during their lifetime. Fun fact: Mary Magdalene’s tooth is actually preserved in one of the relics held in the Met collection! Gross… but cool?

The Medieval Christians had some morbid practices, as shown above… which is awesome. A particular rosary caught our eye, depicting saints as well as skulls. When skulls are depicted in Christian artwork, they’re referred to as memento mori and serve as a reminder of death for the beholder. These skulls comforted the practicing Christian to whom they belonged, especially during a time where plague was eminent. Likewise, it would remind practitioners to live morally and faithfully every day so that heaven is on the other side of that skull instead of Hell. A good reminder to have during this trying time of finals season! 

Moving away from the creepy room filled with saints, teeth, and skulls, we entered the great hall of medieval works. Throughout the Christmas season, the Met displays a large 18th century Christmas tree in this room, adorned with medieval ornaments and scenes from the New and Old Testament. As we reached this magnificent tree, phones ready, the sounds of Christian choir music filled our ears. It was reverent and holy and also super confusing because there were no speakers in sight. It was especially exciting to see this adorned tree on the first day of the advent season! 

Gillian Adler was an amazing guide throughout our medieval journey. Many thanks are in order for her, Professor Ellsberg, Sarah Lawrence for lending Adler to us for the night, and Barnard for having such cool alumni. This tour is 1000% recommended for anyone who is interested in the middle ages, and plus, it’s free for Columbia and Barnard students. So what’s not to love?

Image via Authors