The medieval treasury of Basel Cathedral miraculously survived an earthquake, wars, iconoclasm, and the Protestant Reformation, only to be dispersed as a result of political division in the early nineteenth century. Based on inventories and other documents, nearly all the objects belonging to the treasury have been identified and, today, over half are in the Historisches Museum Basel while the remaining are in museum collections in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, New York, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Vienna, and Zurich. This exhibition unites more than seventy-five of these splendid ecclesiastical and secular objects, the vast majority of which have never before traveled to the United States. The works date from the early eleventh through the early sixteenth century, spanning the Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic periods up to the Reformation. Most are of gold and silver—many encrusted with precious stones, rock crystal, antique gems, or translucent enamels—but there are also actual relics, as well as textiles and objects of rock crystal, bronze, and wood on display, including the original storage cupboard.
The practice of endowing churches with precious objects was widespread in western Europe by the time of Charlemagne (the late eighth–early ninth century), arising from the conviction that only the finest materials were suitable in service to God, the Virgin, or the saints. Liturgical vessels, book covers, and reliquaries were most likely to be made of gold or silver and to be decorated with gemstones, because they were believed to be in contact with the body and blood of Christ, contain the word of God, or hold the remains of saints.
The treasury of the Basel minster was assembled over a period of five centuries—beginning in 1019, with the consecration of the restored cathedral (rebuilt after the destruction of the first Cathedral when the city was sacked by Hungarians in 917) and ending in 1529, when the city adopted the Protestant Reformation. The defining figure in the formation of the Basel Cathedral treasury was Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II, who, as its earliest and principal benefactor, donated several relics and other precious gifts. Members of Basel's Cathedral Chapter, bishops, noblemen, and burghers, as well as dignitaries from outside the diocese, commissioned additional works, thereby further enriching the treasury. Carried in processions and displayed on the Cathedral's high altar, such objects were a tangible embodiment of the power of the church and the status of the donors.