The Power of Things
The exhibition The Power of Things focuses on a number of works in the Niguliste Museum from the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods, among them the great painting Danse Macabre by the Lübeck master Bernt Notke and the altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads by the Master of the St Lucy Legend from Bruges. By placing them side by side with the objects from the collections of the Tallinn City Museum and the Estonian History Museum, a meaningful dialogue develops between the world of the painted and the world of the material objects.
Material possessions played a significant role in both the life and death of people in the Middle Ages. Despite most altarpieces and altar decorations, either painted or carved of wood, having been created for the honour and glory of God, the depiction of expensive objects also enabled people to gain prestige in the community and thereby reinforce relationships and authority. Things have always been characterised by their use value and exchange value and that becomes obvious regarding the multiple luxury objects frequently depicted on altarpieces. The works of art in the Niguliste Museum were commissioned by the town’s elite and, therefore, hide the seamy side of the town’s life: less affluent and weaker citizens. It is essential to bear in mind that the Dance of Death originally presented all of the different social statuses in the Late Medieval society and, therefore, the full picture is lacking, for example the merchants, craftsmen, peasants and the most vulnerable, the poorest and the weakest.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. […] I tell you the truth: it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Such an attitude is reflected in the funeral traditions, where, unlike during the times of pagan religion, the deceased were sent on their final journey not with grave goods but buried naked, merely wrapped in shrouds. The ideals of poverty and simplicity, therefore, remained valid for medieval people, and monks, dedicated to serving Christ, practised, with some reservations, the renunciation of material possessions.
However, the works in the Niguliste Museum present the lifestyle and choices of the elite. Therefore, the star objects of the exhibition are various creations by goldsmiths, such as gilded silver brooches and ornamental engagement pins: masterpieces of goldsmithing. The meaning of Tallinn as a flourishing city is highlighted by the large-scale pictorial rug with plant motifs from the Tallinn City Museum. Special attention was paid to the merchants who dealt in luxury goods, and who are recalled in the exhibition by the 13th-century merchant’s trunk from the Estonian History Museum. An explanation is also provided for the Dance of Death and the ensemble of items depicted on the altarpiece of St Mary, which include expensive gold bars, ceramics, rugs, verdures, various goldsmith items, and signs and symbols of power. The theme of power runs through the exhibition like a red thread, and arises time and again in connection with various works.
Curator: Kerttu Palginõmm
Consultant: Merike Kurisoo
Exhibition design: Mari Kurismaa
Graphic design: Mari Kaljuste
Exhibition team: Toomas Mäelt, Villu Plink, Hendrik Vahter, Valmar Pappel and Tarmo Saaret
Partners: Tallinn City Museum and Estonian History Museum
We thank: Böckler-Mare-Balticum-Stiftung
The Altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of the Tallinn Brotherhood of Black Heads. Detail. Master of the St Lucy Legend from Bruges. Before 1493. Art Museum of Estonia