Little Metal Things

--Ann Bremner

Sarah Blick is passionate about pilgrim souvenirs. No, not replicas of Plymouth Rock or candles in the forms of Priscilla and John Alden. The souvenirs that drive her research played an essential role in the religious experiences of the medieval pilgrims who traveled to such sites as Canterbury in England and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Blick focuses on two major types of souvenirs: ampullae and badges. The ampullae, which are small containers shaped like drawstring pouches, held a few drops of holy water or oil and were often held on cords around the owners' necks. The badges, tiny metal sculptures depicting the Virgin and Child on a quarter moon, a pilgrim figure with a walking staff, or other scenes, were frequently worn as pins. In fact, they're not unlike the enamel pins sold as souvenirs today at tourist destinations and sporting events.

An associate professor of art history who joined the Kenyon faculty in 1994, Blick teaches courses in Asian as well as medieval Western art. But pilgrimage art holds a special fascination for her.

It's a truly popular art form, she explains. Pilgrim souvenirs were made in the millions. Wealthy pilgrims and patrons would buy or even commission souvenirs made of precious metals, but only the mass-produced pieces made of tin, lead, or pewter have survived in large numbers. Those objects, affordable for even the poorest pilgrims, offer a glimpse into the minds of the common people. But Blick sees an additional value. "What if they could help us reconstruct things that no longer exist?" she asks.

That's exactly what Blick has done in her research. In a 2001 article (published in Mirator, an international electronic journal of medieval studies), she analyzed the striking similarities between stained glass windows in Canterbury Cathedral's Trinity Chapel and images on two tin ampullae. Having concluded that the ampullae makers were copying specific windows from the chapel, she then demonstrated how one of the souvenirs might depict a window that "was shattered centuries ago."

She has also marshaled the evidence of pilgrim badges for a far more elaborate conjectural reconstruction, of a shrine to Thomas Becket in Canterbury that was destroyed in 1538. That highly regarded study was Blick's own contribution to Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles (2004), a monumental two-volume collection of essays she edited with Rita Tekippe.

Such hypothetical interpolations are, she admits with a laugh, a bit like finding a souvenir pen in the shape of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty and, from that evidence, trying to recreate the real thing. But art historians have to use the evidence they have available, and historians of medieval art have pilgrim souvenirs available in abundance. There's even a fantastic subgenre of bawdy badges that certainly undercut the stereotype of the ever-devout pilgrim even as they recall some of the more raucous figures who populate Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Why have so many of these "little metal things" survived, especially when the precious versions have been lost? In part, of course, because there were simply so many. But also, Blick suggests, because the same inexpensive materials that made them so affordable and popular saved them from the melting pots that presumably claimed their gold and silver counterparts. Their survival is an irony of art history that she cherishes and celebrates.

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