Key visual of the exhibition coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

coveted. cared for. martyred.

Bodies in the Middle Ages

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Exhibition

Every era and society cultivates its own image of the human body. In the Middle Ages, the physical form was something of a cause célèbre. The all-powerful church considered bodily desire sinful, while worshipping the martyred bodies of Jesus and the saints. Meanwhile, in the secular world, aristocrats nurtured their appearance with cosmetic products and by doing sport – while the common people suffered from disease and demanding physical labour. Ultimately, death loomed in everyone’s future as it was omnipresent during the Middle Ages. Dead bodies were cared for and honoured in the hope of resurrection. The exhibition includes many items on loan from within and outside Switzerland and looks back on the human body in the Middle Ages from a cultural history perspective, thereby also raising some questions about how we perceive the human body today.

Guided tours

Sa 4.5.2024

13:30 – 14:30 Uhr

Guided tour

coveted. cared for. martyred.

Sa 8.6.2024

13:30 – 14:30 Uhr

Guided tour

coveted. cared for. martyred.

Key visual of the exhibition coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

coveted. cared for. martyred.

Guided tour for private groups

Guided tour of the exhibition "coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages ".

Tour: 1 hour

Guided tours can be arranged outside opening hours: Mon between 9.30 am and 6 pm, Tue to Fri between 9.30 am and 7.45 pm. Sat and Sun between 10 am and 5 pm

Registration:  

 2 weeks in advance

Duration:

 

60 minutes; special packages can be offered on request

Group size:

 

max. 25 participants per tour

Languages:

 

English, German, Italian, French. Other offers upon request.

Cost:


 

 

CHF 180 for the guided tour + CHF 10 admission per person

Children up to 16 years free.

For groups of people with permit N, S, B, F (refugee) or F (foreigner), the guided tour and admission are free of charge.

accessibility.sr-only.person_card_info Reservations desk

+41 44 218 66 00 reservationen@nationalmuseum.ch

Schools

Key visual of the exhibition coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

coveted. cared for. martyred. – Introductory tour

Secondary level I and II

Guided tour of the exhibition «coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages».

1 hour
Guided tours are free of charge for school classes from Switzerland.

Guided tours in English can be arranged, even outside opening hours. Guided tours are free of charge for school classes from Switzerland.

Booking:  

at least 2 weeks in advance

Duration:

 

1 hour guided tours, other services by prior arrangement

Group size:

 

max. 25 people

Cost:
 

 

Guided tours for school classes from Switzerland are free of charge.

accessibility.sr-only.person_card_info Reservations desk

+41 44 218 66 00 reservationen@nationalmuseum.ch

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coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

National Museum Zurich | 15.3.2024 - 14.7.2024
published on 13.3.2024

In the Middle Ages, attitudes to the human body were rife with contradictions: it was glorified, oppressed, cared for and chastised. The new temporary exhibition includes many items on loan from within and outside Switzerland and looks back on the human body in the Middle Ages from a cultural history perspective.

In the age of pursuit of the perfect physique, beauty ideals and selfies, you might think that people have never been as obsessed with the human body as they are today. Yet, as early as the Middle Ages, the body and its representation played a pivotal role. In the mainly Christian Europe of the 10th to the late 15th centuries, the body was coveted, cared for and glorified, but also martyred, maimed and maltreated.

The image of the human body in the Middle Ages was primarily influenced by the Church. On the one hand, it saw the body as the seat of desire and thus of sin. There are many depictions of desire with moralising undertones. On the other, Christian art revolved around the flayed body of Jesus on the cross and the ideal of the Virgin Mary, together with depictions of martyrs being put to death in various ways. Their body parts were worshipped by believers as relics, promising to cure the sick, ensure a good harvest, or improve fertility.

In the secular world, too, people in the Middle Ages were equally concerned with their bodies. Men and women of the upper classes owned lavishly decorated hand mirrors, powdered their skin, dyed their hair, and doused themselves in fine fragrances. Sporting activities were also widely practised and seen as a way to promote good health. On holidays and Feast days, men and women in both town and country would take pleasure in running, jumping and dancing. Jousts, shooting competitions and ball games were particularly popular.

In most cases, however, the tough living conditions in the Middle Ages took their toll on the bodies of the lower classes. Hard physical labour, malnutrition and disease had serious health implications. There was no shortage of medical guides to a healthy body, however. A central and widespread theory was humoralism, which sought to achieve a holistic balance in the body. Bathing, cupping and bloodletting were thought to help balance the body’s fluids. While the elite were able to get treated by qualified physicians, most people had to make do with lay medical practitioners and barber-surgeons. A public health system was established at this time, with hospitals set up in monasteries to provide free care and food to patients who were penniless or on the margins of society.

Ultimately, however, death loomed in everyone’s future and dead bodies were ever-present in the Middle Ages. In the hope of resurrection, the living carried out death rituals and prayed for the dead. The importance of the body in the Middle Ages is illustrated by the Christian belief that on the day of their resurrection, people would arise unscathed and whole with the body of a 30-year-old, which was around Jesus’s age when he died.

Numerous loaned items from Switzerland and abroad, including paintings, prints, books, sculptures and ornate everyday objects provide an insight into bodies in the Middle Ages from a cultural history perspective. Multimedia stations and interviews encourage visitors to engage with the subject and to reflect on how bodies are seen today.

Images

Astronomical Man

Two naked, genderless figures stand back to back surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. Various parts of the body are attributed to the twelve signs of the zodiac. People’s well-being is influenced by the stars, seasons and phases of the moon. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Paris/Bourges, 1410–1485, facsimile

Cliché RMN © Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly

Gothic shoe

Beaked shoes, called Poulaines, made of fine leather became fashionable in the mid-14th century. The prevailing culture of knights and courtly love provided a fertile ground for this exaggerated trend. Such shoes served as a status symbol in courtly society. Poulaine in the Gothic style, laced on the side, single shoe, around 1420, Issogne Castle, northern Italy, leather

Bally Schuhmuseum, Schönenwerd

Dance and desire

Accompanied themselves with shrill music, four men cavort sensually and ecstatically before the onlookers. The girl holds up a ring as a prize. The courtship is offensive, with the fool of the group symbolizing indecent sexual conduct. The Moresca Dancers, Israhel van Meckenem, last third of the 15th century, copperplate engraving

ALBERTINA, Wien

Fencing and martial arts exercises

These pen and ink drawings from the Late Middle Ages show various types of martial arts and the techniques employed in performing them. They are based on illustrations in other combat manuals. Shown here are the trial by combat with mace and shield, close-quarters combat with sword or rapier, and wrestling. Solothurn Fechtbuch, after Paulus Kal and Hans Talhoffer, 1505–1515, coloured pen and ink drawings on paper

Zentralbibliothek Solothurn

Almsgiving

Beggars disfigured by disease were omnipresent in medieval cities. Almsgiving was a way of virtuously atoning for one’s sins. St. Oswald exemplified the Christian virtue of mercy. Almsgiving of St. Oswald, Master of the Oswald legend, around 1480/1485, painting on fir wood

Belvedere, Wien

Felix, Regula and Exuperantius

A series of seven paintings depicting episodes from the legend of Zurich’s patron saints, Felix, Regula and Exuperantius. Persecuted for their Christian beliefs, the two siblings and their friend were first apprehended, then tortured and finally beheaded. Scenes from the legends of Saints Felix, Regula and Exuperantius, around 1490, Vienna/Kassa, tempera and gold on wood

Keresztény Múzeum, Esztergom, Photo: Attila Mudrák

Pierced by arrows

Sebastian was pierced by numerous arrows shot by archers as punishment for betrayal and his Christian faith. According to legend, he survived the ordeal. Arrows were symbolic of the plague, which explains why Sebastian became a plague saint following an outbreak of that disease in Rome in 680. St. Sebastian, possibly made in Southern Germany, 1490–1500, reportedly from Graubünden, painted lime wood

Swiss National Museum

Wild

A ‘wild man’ with shaggy red hair is depicted leading a tame stag on a leash. A wild ram leaps out of the way. ‘Wild people’ living in nature represented a counter-world to the strict ideals and morality of courtly society. Knitted tapestry with wild man, stag and ram, Stag and Ram, Basel, around 1480, knitted wool

Swiss National Museum

Cure and pleasure

Old and young amuse themselves at a thermal spa – exchanging intimacies, eating, drinking and playing music. Mixed bathhouses were closed at the beginning of the 16th century due to ‘moral decline’ and the spread of syphilis. The Bath at Leuk (?), Hans Bock the elder, around 1597, oil on canvas

Kunstmuseum Basel

The hair wash

Saint Verena was a model of compassion. She is depicted here dressed as a bourgeois woman and in the act of washing the hair of a plague sufferer, who is recognizable as such due to the rattle attached to his belt. The scene in the top-left corner shows Verena serving a meal to the needy. Saint Verena washing the hair of a plague victim, around 1525, tempera on wood

Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, Hendrik Zwietasch

‘Court jesters’

Depicted in the foreground of this banquet scene are a person of short stature – disguised as a fool – and a monkey. Persons of small stature assuming the role of ‘court jesters’ were responsible for entertaining the nobles. Despite being members of the court, they were outsiders. Royal banquet of King Aeëtes with Jason and Medea, Bernardino Orsi da Collecchio (attributed), Bologna, around 1480–1490, oil on wood

Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris, © Les Arts Décoratifs/Jean Tholance

Faith and disease

According to the Old Testament, the wealthy Job lost everything and succumbed to festering ulcers. The power of his faith saved him from the disease. He came to symbolize the overcoming of undeserved suffering caused by sickness. Job on his sickbed, Pseudo Bartolomeo di Giovanni, 1475–1500, poplar wood

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Jörg P. Anders

Beautiful nobility

The knight appears not in armour but in fashionable dress: tightfitting trousers with a codpiece, and elongated beaker shoes. The woman has her hair in braids, indicating that she is unmarried, and is wearing a long, high-waisted dress. The appearance of this graceful couple reflects the prevailing ideals of beauty. The Knight and his Beauty, Israhel van Meckenem, last third of the 15th century, copperplate engraving

ALBERTINA, Wien

Mirror with lovers

These scenes of courtship depict a young man’s subtle approaches and caresses. These culminate in him being crowned with a wreath by the woman. Mirrors made of ivory were popular gifts for courtly ladies in the 13th and 14th century. Mirror case with scenes of courtly love, Paris, 1st third of the 14th century, ivory

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum / Stefan Büchner

The beautiful death

The tradition of death masks emerged towards the end of the Middle Ages. The depiction of death thereby acquired a new reality. In her final portrait, the late Queen Joan of France and Abbess of Bourges appears eternally beautiful and dignified. Death mask of Joan of France (1464–1505), 1505, plaster

Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’Art

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

View of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

View of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

View of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

View of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

View of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages

Key visual of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

Swiss National Museum press contact

+41 44 218 66 63 medien@nationalmuseum.ch

Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella
  • Project direction Christine Keller
  • Curator and Concept Christine Keller
  • Scenography Atelier Schubert und Irina Voth, Stuttgart
  • Exhibition graphic Atelier Schubert und Carola Wüst, Stuttgart
  • Scientific collaboration Valérie Lüthi
  • Scientific internship Jasmin Pfister
  • Project coordination Sophie Dänzer
  • Scientific consulting Valentin Groebner, Martina Albertini, Cornel Dora, Franz X. Eder, Romedio Schmitz-Esser, Christian Jaser, Daniela Mondini, Assaf Pinkus, Andrew Sears, Eva Seemann, Susanne Prillwitz
  • Advisory committee Günhan Akarçay, Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Project controlling Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural services and museum education Lisa Engi, Vera Humbel, Jörg Ramel
  • Technical management Ladina Fait, Debbie Sledsens, Mike Zaugg
  • Exhibition construction Ira Allemann, Marc Hägeli, Ian Hügi, Philippe Leuthardt, Sophie Lühr, Dave Schwitter
  • Conservation management Natalie Ellwanger, Alexandra Schorpp
  • Conservation and mounting of objects Nikkibarla Calonder, Sarah Longrée, Charlotte Maier, Véronique Mathieu, Jürg Mathys, Carolin Muschel, Gaby Petrak, Ulrike Rothenhäusler, Peter Wyer, Tino Zagermann, Christian Alder Wädenswil
  • Loans department Laura Mosimann, Claudio Stefanutto, Samira Tanner
  • Object logistics and assembly David Blazquez, Christian Affentranger, Simon d’Hollosy, Reto Hegetschweiler, Aymeric Nager, Markus Scherer
  • Photography Jörg Brandt
  • Picture library Fabian Müller, Andrea Kunz, Remo Sidler
  • IT | Web Ueli Heiniger, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Media stations Alex Baur, Thomas Bucher, Ueli Heiniger, Pasquale Pollastro, Atelier Schubert Stuttgart, Dirk Schubert, tonwelt GmbH Berlin
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander, Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Advertising graphic Achtung! Bern, Marco Heer
  • Translations Ernesto Borserini, Marie-Claude Buch-Chalayer, Bill Gilonis, Laurence Neuffer, Language Factory
  • Editing Miriam Waldvogel

Items generously loaned by

  • Historisches Museum Basel
  • Kunstmuseum Basel
  • Öffentliche Bibliothek der Universität Basel
  • Pharmaziemuseum der Universität Basel
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum
  • Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett
  • Burgerbibliothek Bern
  • Musée Unterlinden, Colmar
  • Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cologny (Genève)
  • Stiftsbibliothek Kloster Einsiedeln
  • Keresztény Múzeum, Esztergom
  • Musei del Bargello, Firenze
  • Direzione Regionale Musei della Toscana, Museo di San Marco, Firenze
  • Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
  • Städtische Museen Freiburg, Augustinermuseum, Freiburg im Breisgau
  • Diözesanmuseum Freising
  • Musée d‘art et d‘histoire Fribourg
  • Bibliothèque de Genève
  • MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève
  • Diözesanmuseum Graz
  • Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg
  • Collectie Familie Van Beuningen, Langbroek
  • Direzione Regionale Musei della Toscana, Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca
  • Collection Château de Morges & ses musées
  • Universitätsbibliothek der LMU München
  • Museum für medizinhistorische Bücher Muri
  • Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg
  • Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
  • Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris
  • Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris
  • Musée du Louvre, Département des Objets d’art, Paris
  • Musée du Louvre, Département des Sculptures, Paris
  • Rudolf Martin, Radolfzell
  • Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen
  • Bally Schuhmuseum, Schönenwerd, Bally Schuhfabriken AG
  • Amt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie, Kantonsarchäologie Solothurn
  • Zentralbibliothek Solothurn
  • Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen
  • Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart
  • ALBERTINA, Wien
  • Belvedere, Wien
  • Stiftung für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Winterthur
  • Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich
  • Kunsthaus Zürich
  • Universität Zürich, Institut für Evolutionäre Medizin (IEM)
  • Zentralbibliothek Zürich