Triumph of Avarice Willem de Pannemaker, ca. 1534-1536. Wool, silk, and gilt-metal wrapped thread. 12 x 24 feet (4.43 x 15 m). Bequest of J.P. Morgan, Jr., 1943. © The Morgan Library & Museum, Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2016.
The Morgan Library & Museum is pleased to present Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality. Opening November 10, 2023, and on view through March 10, 2024, the exhibition is the first to examine the economic revolution in medieval Europe and to chart the expanding role and perception of money during that period. Anchored around some of the Morgan’s most acclaimed medieval manuscripts, it critically recontextualizes items from the collection as well as other exceptional objects on loan through a decidedly new lens.
Medieval Europe witnessed an economic revolution: trade was conducted on an unprecedented scale, banks were established, and coin production surged. The expanding role of money in daily life sparked ethical and theological debates as individuals reflected on fluctuating markets, disparities in wealth, personal conduct, and morality. This installation brings together the Morgan’s illuminated manuscripts with paintings and other loans, including a brass alms box, a wealth of medieval coins, and a formidable strongbox, to reveal the complex ways people conceived of money during this time of rapid economic change.
Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality dramatizes a struggle that followed the rise of capitalism in the Middle Ages: Would you rather have your money or your eternal life? Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting Death and the Miser, which opens the exhibition, shows a man confronting this very question on his deathbed, as a demon offers him a money bag while an angel urges him to turn to God. The display reveals the tension between material gain and spiritual fulfillment, between the desire to succeed in business and accumulate wealth and Christian ideals of poverty and charity.
In another section, the exhibition explores the question, “Will money damn your soul?” For medieval Christians, avarice—the desire for material things—was a deadly sin. With the rise of commerce, investment, and banking, many began to interpret avarice more narrowly as the lust for money. This section foregrounds medieval perspectives on immoral ways of acquiring and spending money, concerns that find ready parallels in contemporary life. While numerous debates centered on usury, the practice of lending money at interest, swindlers, robbers, embezzlers, tricksters, and gamblers were condemned by secular and ecclesiastical authorities alike.
Conversely, the exhibition examines the potential of money, highlighting moral responses to it, as well as societal transformations brought about by the new culture of commerce. Medieval Christians did not reductively condemn money; rather, they saw how it could be channeled to support religious initiatives and to help the less privileged. The installation tracks the rise of the new mercantile class, as shown in the Morgan’s Portrait of a Man with a Pink by Hans Memling, which likely depicts a young Italian merchant. With the rise of commerce and the invention of financial instruments came changes in social and economic mobility, as the accumulation of wealth became possible for those who were not born into it.
Additional highlights of the exhibition include a steel strongbox borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with an elaborate locking mechanism consisting of nine bolts and various leaf-shaped shields. Also on view are two volumes of the Morgan’s extraordinary “Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves. One volume is open to an image of St. Gregory framed by an unusual border of gold and silver coins. Several of the medieval coins depicted in the miniature, or their close equivalents, will be displayed alongside the manuscript, thanks to the generosity of the American Numismatic Society.
Colin B. Bailey, Director of the Morgan Library & Museum, said “The Morgan is very pleased to present this comprehensive, interdisciplinary exhibition that draws on years of research on a topic that is rarely addressed for a general public. It continues a now well-established tradition at the Morgan of organizing ambitious medieval projects that reflect the strength of our holdings and our commitment to making the latest scholarship available to as wide an audience as possible.”
This exhibition is curated by Diane Wolfthal, David and Caroline Minter Chair Emerita in the Humanities and Professor Emerita of Art History at Rice University, with Deirdre Jackson, Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum. It is accompanied by a groundbreaking new publication of the same name, which includes new essays by Steven A. Epstein and David Yoon.
Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality
November 10, 2023–March 10, 2024
The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York, NY 10016
Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality: An Introduction to the Exhibition
Friday, November 10, 2023, 6 PM
Lecture by Diane Wolfthal, David and Caroline Minter Chair Emerita in the Humanities and
Professor Emerita of Art History, Rice University, and Guest Curator of the exhibition
The rise of the monetary economy transformed every aspect of late medieval European society, including its values and culture. How did manuscript illuminations, sculptures, panel paintings, and illustrations in printed books reflect and reinforce the complex ethical discussions that developed from the widespread role of money in everyday life? How does medieval art shed light on greed, charity, economic inequality, and money management, topics just as relevant today? These questions will be addressed in this lecture by Guest Curator Diane Wolfthal, David and Caroline Minter Chair Emerita in the Humanities and Professor Emerita of Art History at Rice University.
The exhibition Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality will open at 5 pm for program attendees.
Free with museum admission; advance registration required.
An Evening with Christopher de Hamel: The Manuscripts Club: The People Behind a Thousand Years of Medieval Manuscripts
Friday, November 17, 2023, 6 PM
Join Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts and winner of both the Wolfson History Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize, for a discussion on his latest book The Manuscripts Club: The People Behind a Thousand Years of Medieval Manuscripts. De Hamel describes some of the extraordinary people who have spent their lives among illuminated manuscripts over the last thousand years: a monk in Normandy, a prince of France, a Florentine bookseller, an English antiquary, a rabbi from central Europe, a French priest, a Keeper at the British Museum, a Greek forger, a German polymath, a British connoisseur and the woman who created the most spectacular library in America—all of them members of what Christopher de Hamel calls the Manuscripts Club.
The lecture will be followed by a book signing. The exhibition Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality will be on view at 5 PM for program attendees.
Free with museum admission, advance registration is required.
Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality
Friday, February 2, 2024, 5:30 PM
Gallery talk with Deirdre Jackson, Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts
Adult Workshop: Crafting an Illuminated Letter
Friday, March 8, 2024, 4–6 PM
Join Museum Educator and artist Maria Yoon for a tour of the exhibition Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality, after which you will craft your very own illuminated letter. During this creative process, participants will use historical artists’ techniques to work with traditional tools and ingredients like gold leaf, saffron threads, dried insects, and malachite chips. It’s going to be a delightful and enriching experience! Materials will be provided.
Tickets: $45; $35 for Morgan Members.
ORGANIZATION AND SPONSORSHIP
The exhibition is curated by Diane Wolfthal, David and Caroline Minter Chair Emerita in the Humanities and Professor Emerita of Art History at Rice University, with Deirdre Jackson, Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum.
Medieval Money, Merchants, and Morality is made possible by the Lucy Ricciardi Family Exhibition Fund, an anonymous donor, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Research and Publications, with support from the Charles E. Pierce, Jr. Fund for Exhibitions, the Achelis & Bodman Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the David L. Klein Jr. Foundation, Marguerite Steed Hoffman, Virginia Schirrmeister and Anne Goldrach, and the Themis Anastasia Brown Fund. Assistance is provided by Elizabeth A. R. and Ralph S. Brown, Jr., Caroline Sharfman Bacon, Gregory T. Clark, and an anonymous donor.
ABOUT THE MORGAN LIBRARY & MUSEUM
A museum and independent research library located in the heart of New York City, the Morgan Library & Museum began as the personal library of financier, collector, and cultural benefactor Pierpont Morgan. The Morgan offers visitors close encounters with great works of human accomplishment in a setting treasured for its intimate scale and historic significance. Its collection of manuscripts, rare books, music, drawings, and works of art comprises a unique and dynamic record of civilization, as well as an incomparable repository of ideas and of the creative process from 4000 BC to the present.
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