A couple days ago, I visited —a branch of the , located at the northern edge of Manhattan and dedicated to medieval art and architecture. The museum, along with neighboring , is one of my favorite spots in New York. Home of the iconic Unicorn Tapestries and herb gardens that would be the envy of any alchemist, the space hosts an energy that is not easily found in the throngs of the mid-Manhattan Museum District: quiet, natural, reflective. I love the atmosphere.
The art itself is, of course, extraordinary. And everything is art, from the paintings to the statues, the ornate wooden doors to the figures carved into structural columns. Even the sinks and the pitchers of water used to wash hands before a meal, all of it is gorgeous in a way that makes the prefabricated frames of my Ikea furniture feel shameful. The books on display are made from parchment paper, handwritten in calligraphic ink with gilded drop caps and sketches of angels and saints in the margins. Dishes, tapestries, candelabras—these simple, functional objects are presented as ornate decorations. The display of wealth is shocking, really. Chess pieces carved from elephant ivory rest behind a glass case in one air-conditioned gallery. It’s obvious that these few stray pieces were once part of a complete set, kept in someone’s home. They were probably dusted regularly by a servant and pulled out from time to time when the master of the house felt like playing a match or two. They were part of a life. It all was.
On the one hand, I know that these objects—valuable in their own time and priceless today—were never the norm. I know that they are symbols of exorbitant wealth, vestiges of people who lived decadently, either ignorant or negligent of the poverty that surrounded their own happy, gold-plated bubble. I know that, if she’d been around in the 14th century, Suze Orman would have told these people that commissioning a jewel-encrusted chalice isn’t the smartest financial move.
Still, there is something I can’t help but appreciate about their extravagance. Maybe it’s the result of a childhood spent watching Disney movies and playing princess dress-up. But I think it’s more than that. What I really love is that these people, who had money and influence to burn, chose to cash it in on beauty. On creativity. On art. What struck me most during my time in the museum was the detail with which even the most ordinary everyday items were crafted. The handles of a heavy wooden door, adorned with carvings, angelic faces chiseled into the corners of a window; the tapestries used for winter insulation, woven with intricate narrative scenes. Beauty was important, and these were people who wanted to immerse themselves in it.
Consequently, the artist was an important person—the person they could pay to provide them with the things their money couldn’t actually buy. Talent was celebrated on a scale that seems unreachable for the modern-day creative, whose work is nurtured on a much more “indie” scale, and whose education is often dismissed as fanciful procrastination before the dust settles on the “real world” of post-collegiate life. Artistry was valued and, perhaps most importantly for the artists themselves, it was fashionable. Time consuming, non-utilitarian, trendy, successful expression—and unapologetically multifaceted.
There’s a lesson there.