Lifestyle & Culture

Hidden Treasure . . . for Almost 500 Years

November 7, 2019

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BEING AN OUTSIDER or a newcomer can confer advantage: You may see things with fresh eyes, see possibilities where old-timers don’t. But it can also be a liability. Ask any American immigrant who is nervous in the current climate.

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Now consider the 14th-century Jewish community of Colmar, an Alsatian city along the Rhine River in what is modern-day France and then was part of the Holy Roman Empire. Those residents too were recent immigrants, living alongside a largely Christian population and making  their livelihood as merchants as part of the growing wine industry. They flourished under the pope and were governed and in some ways protected by the emperor.

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Then came the Plague of 1348-49, which wound up killing an enormous percentage of the European population. When it spread to  Colmar, the fearful, angry townspeople blamed the disease on their water—and then accused their Jewish neighbors of poisoning the wells. The pope asserted their innocence, but the emperor turned a blind eye to the rule of law, and in the end the townspeople of Colmar burned the city’s Jewish residents to death.

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Fast-forward to 1863, when workmen were renovating a confectionery shop on the Colmar street once called the Rue des Juifs (Street of the Jews). Immured in the structure was a small cache—rings, brooches, keys and coins—tucked away by the building’s inhabitants no doubt to protect their possessions until they could return home. It’s unlikely they ever did.

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The so-called Colmar Treasure has belonged to the Musée de Cluny in Paris since 1923 and is now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters outpost, in a verdant setting at the northern reaches of Manhattan (but still accessible by subway!). The Cloisters team has added precious objects of a similar nature to bulk up what is a small trove of rather delicate treasures.

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The location of the find (talk about objets trouvés!) on the “Jewish street” suggested the original ownership of the jewelry and trinkets, but the Hebrew writing on several pieces—rings, a drinking cup—certainly seems like proof that these were owned by middle-class Jewish residents who kept their ancient traditions while living as a religious and cultural minority.

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Time spent with the Colmar Treasure is time well spent. Then you can nip upstairs to reacquaint yourself with the Unicorn tapestries, the Merode Altarpiece and other marvels of the Middle Ages.

—Nancy McKeon

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“The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy,” Met Cloisters, 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, New York, New York 10040; 212-923-3700, met museum.org.

 



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