Wrestling with the Violent Pasts of Objects

I originally trained to write my dissertation using sources and objects in French and Belgian archives. Then I started tracing medieval portable altars and the trail of evidence pulled me eastward. Now my dissertation focuses on portable altars and devotional objects in north-central Germany, specifically the area of Saxony known as the Harz region. Overall, it’s been a relatively smooth transition, supported by my advisor, committee, and parents. But an unexpected discovery accompanied the shift in research territory.

The best laid plans…

Since so many medieval German devotional objects survived into the modern era, most of the portable altars I work with came into direct contact with Nazi art dealers or looters from both the Axis and Allied armies. At first, I tried to ignore the modern afterlives of my medieval objects and keep myself firmly grounded in the 11th and 12th centuries. But these objects didn’t teleport from their original medieval treasuries into their current display cases; there were threats made, money handed over, documents signed under duress, and international laws broken. Turning a blind eye to the 20th-century violence connected to medieval portable altars doesn’t undo the damage already wrought. So, here are three short cases (out of dozens) where medieval devotional objects overlap with modern malice.

The Guelph Treasure

The majority of medieval European portable altars in my dissertation were made in German lands between 1000 and 1250 CE. A shocking number survived the Protestant Reformation, either guarded closely by their church or in private hands. By the late 1800s, medieval portable altars were scattered across museum, church, and private collections. In the late-19th century, three French scholars (Arcisse De Caumont, Rohault De Fleury, and Jules Corblet) catalogued many of these items in their publications. Somehow, most medieval portable altars made it through the destruction of World War I. Joseph Braun’s 1924 work, Des christliche Altar in seiner Entwicklung, lists hundreds of medieval portable altars in Europe and includes photographs of each.

Unfortunately, Braun’s publication is the last mention of several medieval portable altars. Shortly after the Nazi party’s rise to power, Nazi authorities began forcing Jewish antiquities dealers in Germany to liquidate their collections under duress. These sometimes took the form of public art “auctions,” appearing legitimate but overseen by Himmler and Goebbels – with all profits funneled directly to them.

One of these Jewish art collections was (and still is) known as the Guelph Treasure: a group of 82 medieval devotional objects, made between the 8th and 15th centuries, that were kept together by the family of Braunschweig-Lüneburg for over 600 years.1 In 1929, the Guelph Treasure was sold to Julius F. Goldschmidt, Z.M. Hackenbroch, and J. Rosenbaum. Shortly after, it was exhibited across the United States and forcibly sold piece-meal to various museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, in North America.

By 1935, only 44 of the original 82 Guelph Treasure objects remained in Germany. These 44 items, including over 10 portable altars, were purchased by the Prussian state and are currently housed in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin. The Guelph Treasure as a whole, however, is still the subject of great controversy, as the descendants of the Jewish antiquities dealers seek ownership of the collection and some groups argue the entire collection belongs in Germany.2

Some of the Guelph Treasure portable altars in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin (photos by author)

The Dumbarton Oaks Altar

In 1937, art advisor Royall Tyler expressed his relief that Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Bliss “didn’t compete for the Guelph treasure” when it was being sold (Letter 4.IX.37). Mildred and Robert purchased many art objects on the market for their collection, which would become Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C.

In the same 1937 letter, Tyler discouraged Mildred from purchasing “Germanic” items and chastised her for buying a medieval portable altar from the abbey of Melk in Austria. Tyler stated, “I don’t care much for the ivory part…(I admit the top is attractive)” (Letter 4.IX.37).

The portable altar that Royall Tyler objected to in his September 4, 1937 letter to Mildred Barnes Bliss. Now in Dumbarton Oaks, BZ 1937.16. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

The portable altar in question is very similar to another ivory altar, still at Melk Abbey. The ivory reliefs and feet, metalwork, and central red porphyry stone are original to the 11th century, but the red velvet on top was part of a restoration attempt in the 19th century. The ivory reliefs are nearly identical to others found in museums across Europe and the United States, which led famed Jewish art historian Adolph Goldschmidt to conclude that they all originated from a devotional object workshop near Cologne, Germany.

Goldschmidt himself was a friend of Mildred Barnes and Robert Bliss. In the same letter where Royall Tyler berated Mildred for the medieval portable altar purchase, he mourned the fact that Goldschmidt was forbidden to leave Germany. Additionally, Tyler stated that the Nazi authorities “have been trying (in vain) to get his [non-Jewish] old housekeeper-servant (aged about 60) to state that Gogo [Tyler’s nickname for Goldschmidt] has made attempts on her virtue.”3 Undoubtedly, this accusation was supposed to be an excuse to arrest Goldschmidt, who was a respected scholar, but it never came to fruition. Goldschmidt managed to flee to Switzerland, where he passed away in 1944.


The medieval history of the region I now study was integral to the Nazi lebensbraum ideology. The Nazis heralded King Henry I (876-936 CE), the founder of the Ottonian dynasty, as the first king of Germany and their nationalist hero.4 Himmler even considered himself to be King Henry I’s reincarnation. So the Nazi party took over the medieval church at Quedlinburg Abbey, which was the burial place for Henry and many of his family members. Himmler and his team physically altered the architecture, removed the furnishings, and used Jewish slave labor to create new items for the building.

The peaceful medieval past of Quedlinburg Abbey was transformed into a glorification of white supremacy because of its prominence in the Middle Ages. But Quedlinburg even suffered more injustice after it was abandoned by Nazi soldiers. Just prior to the Nazi arrival on the site, Quedlinburg’s medieval reliquaries, portable altars, and liturgical books were taken from the Abbey’s treasury and hidden in a nearby mineshaft. On April 19, 1945, a United States battalion found the collection.5 Although they placed it under guard, by June the Quedlinburg church authorities stated that eight objects were missing from the cache.

St. Servatius reliquary – not one of the eight items taken by Lieutenant Meador, but in the same treasury collection (I appreciate Dr. Evan Gatti’s correction on this point). Photo: Domschatz Quedlinburg

Among the missing items were an illuminated 9th-century Gospel, an evangeliary, multiple reliquaries and a portable altar, and an ivory liturgical comb. The trail went cold in 1949, as Quedlinburg and the surrounding area was absorbed into East Germany.

But the objects turned up in Whitewright, Texas, in 1980. Lieutenant Joe T. Meador, a member of the battalion that came across the Quedlinburg treasures, had smuggled the eight items out of Germany in 1945 and kept them in his Texas home until his death. After a series of international lawsuits, the eight medieval objects returned to Quedlinburg Abbey, where they are now on display.

These examples of the entanglement between medieval things and modern injustices have led me to reexamine my own methodologies. When I study things of the distant past, I can’t discount the more recent individuals who came into contact with them, who argued over them, who were threatened or killed because of their connection with them. If I write about these objects in their medieval contexts and their current museum cases, but skip over how they arrived from Point A to Point B, I erase the existence of the hands that held them and ignore the suffering they witnessed.

So I’ve decided that I can’t be just a historian of devotional objects in medieval German lands. Instead, I must recognize medieval devotional objects in all of their contexts, from their creation to today, and keep those narratives alive.

Otherwise, they’re just things.

[1] https://www.preussischer-kulturbesitz.de/newsroom/dossiers-and-news/all-dossiers/dossier-the-guelph-treasure/what-is-the-guelph-treasure/?L=1. See also Christina Nielsen, “‘The greatest group of medieval objects ever offered for sale’: the Guelph Treasure and America, 1930-1931,” Journal of the History of Collections 27:3 (2015): 441-453.

[2] https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/supreme-court-delays-guelph-treasure-appeal-so-us-government-can-add-its-views-to-case

[3] Letter 4.IX.37. Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, September 4, 1937. https://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence/letters/04sep1937.

[4] see William J. Diebold, “The Nazi Middle Ages,” in Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past, edited by Andrew Albin, Mary C. Erler, Thomas Nicholas L. Paul, and Nina Rowe, 104-115. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

[5] William H. Honan, “A Trove of Medieval Art Turns Up in Texas,” New York Times, June 14, 1990.

Want to follow my portable altar adventures and learn more about these fascinating objects? Have a question about them? Spotted a medieval portable altar in the wild? Tweet @ me on Twitter and use the hashtag #TragaltarFan!

The Portable Altar in Netflix’s “The King”

About an hour and 20 minutes into Netflix’s The King, the young Henry V kneels in prayer inside his tent. It’s a short visual scene, meant to showcase the King’s piety and his continued devotion while on military campaign. But for such a brief moment of film, the set is incredibly accurate. Henry prays before a table which holds two candlesticks, a cross, a devotional book, a chalice and paten, and a golden, box-like object. This last item is a portable altar, and I literally screamed when I saw it on my laptop screen.

Screenshot from Netflix’s “The King” (copyright Netflix 2019)

When Hollywood Gets It Right

For medieval Christians, the Mass and prayer were meant to take place inside a church: a permanent structure built of wood, stone, brick, or other materials. Although existing churches were the preferred location for such religious ritual, finding a permanent church while on military campaign was often difficult. Christian clergy often constructed temporary sacred spaces in which to perform the Eucharist while in camp. And in the absence of a permanent church altar, priests placed the chalice and paten on “traveling altars” during the Mass.

A brief look at the most well-known and widely circulated crusade chronicles reveals evidence for the use of portable tent chapels on campaign to the East. Fulcher of Chartres mentions the Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place “in the tent of the king” and later states how altars were carried around the walls of Jerusalem, echoing the Israelites’ procession around Jericho.[1] Between battles, Jean de Joinville sat with his dying priest in his chapel tent. He even admonished a group of soldiers, “Because they were speaking in a loud tone of voice in my chapel and disturbing the priest, I went up to them and told them to keep silent, and said it was most discourteous on the part of knights and gentlemen to talk while Mass was being sung.”[2] Guibert of Nogent records how, in Peter the Hermit’s camp, “they found a certain priest performing Mass, and they killed him in the very act of completing the sacrament; while he was sacrificing to God, they sacrificed him at the same altar.”[3]

These are just a few of the existing textual examples that reveal the presence of portable altars on medieval military campaigns. As Stephen Fliegel states, “liturgical practice of the medieval church required basic sacral objects,” and performing the Mass on the move necessitated the same objects found in the permanent churches of Europe.[4] In Netflix’s The King, when Henry kneels before the important objects of his faith in his makeshift chapel tent in foreign territory, it’s incredibly realistic.

So, what is a portable altar?

The identity of medieval portable altars is simultaneously extremely simple and very complex. There is no definitive object typology of portable altars, although there are several individual studies and a few art historical inventories. For the purpose of discussing Henry’s altar in The King, I offer the most basic criteria for what constitutes a portable altar: it contains saints’ relics, it’s flat, and it serves a devotional purpose. (*This definition can, of course, apply to reliquaries, some liturgical books, etc. Like I said, #ItsComplicated.)

The earliest surviving medieval portable altar, dating to the 7th/8th centuries, resides in Durham Cathedral in England. Portable altar production exploded on the European Continent between the 11th and 13th centuries, but their popularity gradually faded in the 1300s. I’m still figuring out why, but my hunch is that portable altars were slowly replaced with altar retables and larger adornments during the Mass.

Henry’s altar in “The King” looks remarkably similar to two surviving medieval portable altars, both made long before the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and in what is now Germany. Still, Henry’s altar has embossed figures around the sides, made of either gold or bronze sheets on wood. These panels typically featured standing saints or Biblical narrative scenes.

Portable Altar made c.1075 in Lower Saxony

Inv. W2 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin (photo: Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin)

Portable Altar made 11th-12th cent. in Lower Saxony

Inv. 53-77 in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (photo: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Screenshot from Netflix’s “The King” (copyright Netflix 2019) My apologies for the potato-quality…

Maybe Henry was gifted the portable altar as an heirloom from German cousins, or maybe it was looted at some point between its creation and its on-screen appearance. In any case, the presence of a portable altar in Henry’s campaign tent is remarkably historically accurate and not just a random prop. It signals the need for portable devotional objects in medieval Europe and attests to their usage. Kudos to the set designers and their attention to detail, and my thanks for making my dissertation topic appear on-screen!

Want to follow my portable altar adventures and learn more about these fascinating objects? Have a question about them? Spotted a medieval portable altar in the wild? Find me on Twitter (@salu1292)!

[1] Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 160.

[2] Jean de Joinville, “The Life of Saint Louis,” in Chronicles of the Crusades, 238.

[3] Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks, 51.

[4] Stephen N. Fliegel, Resplendent Faith: Liturgical Treasuries of the Middle Ages (Kent (OH): Kent State University Press, 2009), 16.