Art and The Study of Materials at the Getty Research Institute
By Miguel Bermudez
The Getty Research Institute (GRI) is an international center dedicated to providing resources, expertise, and a collaborative environment for art-historical research and publication. An important undertaking by the GRI is its Scholars’ program. Headed by Dr. A. Alexa Sekyra, the GRI sponsors 38 outstanding individuals every year who comes to the Institute to research subjects chosen by the Center over a six-month period. The program, started in 1985, has become a prestigious and sought after opportunity by hundreds of scholars, artists and cultural figures from around the world. In the most recent year, approximately 548 applicants competed for one of 38 placements. The work undertaken by these scholars and the cross-fertilization and exchange of ideas that are produced in this environment has had a multiplying effect on the field of art history and research throughout the world. The scholar’s work sheds light on new fields of understanding art and it adds to continued discovery and meaning that art brings to the thread of humanity.
Materials employed in the production of art communicate the complex and profound importance of man’s activities and emotions. Artists across time and space have infused materials not only with ritual and symbolic significance, but also with the social, the political and the commercial. The study of materials is one aspect of art where technology opens new fields of discovery and understanding. It helps us correct, validate and enhance the knowledge of how, why, what for and when these pieces of art were made throughout history.
One of The Getty Research Institute’s Scholars illustrates the manner in which a specific field can help us understand something as popular as luxury in society, expressed through objects of art.
Visa Immonen, a young research scholar and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Archeology at the University of Turku, Finland, is collecting research on “The Art and Science of Sacred Materiality – Late Medieval Relics and Reliquaries in Europe as Art Historical Objects”.
He chose the field of Archeology because it enabled him to combine his interest in art history with the observation of details through objects. In order to validate one’s ideas with respect to an ancient art object, it is important to study the small details and the materials used in its composition. While studying goldsmith art in medieval Finland, he became interested in the topic of luxury consumption during the medieval times. He was presented with an opportunity to analyze the reliquaries and relics contained at Turku Cathedral, which allowed him to conduct studies on the bones, textiles and metals used to produce these medieval objects.
Chalice Medieval Ages
Luxury illustrates the meaning and importance of his very specific research for art and for our society. The reliquaries were crafted of or covered with gold, silver, ivory, gems and enamel. These precious objects constituted a major form of artistic production across Europe and Byzantium through the Middle Ages. Reliquaries were sometimes created expressly for privileged individuals or purchased by them. “The faithful of humble means could also acquire a souvenir at the shrines of saints that called to mind the precious works of art associated with them…those reliquaries that survive bear precious witness to the exceptional artistic creativity inspired by contemporary faith”, according to Barbara Drake Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters.
The Medieval Ages was a period of turmoil and social instability. Wars were constant and plagues were prevalent. But it was also a time when commerce and trade began bringing exotic and luxurious materials from Asia and the Middle East to Europe. Silk made an appearance from China and precious stones became available for goldsmiths to shape and use in objects. Reliquaries were embellished and covered using these stones and textiles. Luxurious objects were being produced for both the upper classes and the church.
Cross Pendant 1150 Bc