Bones Can Tell Stories- Treasures of Heaven and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

By Hajnal Eppley Museum Ambassadors/ Lifelong Learning Center Assistant

Dr. Linda Spurlock discusses the findings

Despite what some may think, science and art are not mutually exclusive. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Museum Ambassadors learned about the connections between the two first hand as they met with Dr. Linda Spurlock and Dr. David Saja at the Cleveland Museum of Natural Historyon November 10th. Spurlock and Saja examined two artworks from our collection, the Portable Altar of Countess Gertrude and the Monstrance with a Relic of Saint Sebastian in an effort to determine authenticity. Spurlock, CMNH’s Director of Human Health, was responsible for analyzing bones and flesh within the two reliquaries while Saja studied the gemstones. Both revealed some interesting findings.

Within the nine compartments of Countess Gertrude’s altar, Spurlock found bony remains and pieces of flesh, some of which were wrapped in pieces of cloth or manuscript. In order to preserve the relics, Spurlock left the wrappings intact and used non-invasive methods such as x-ray.

She determined that six of the pieces were definitely bone. One of the bones puzzled Spurlock—it was thought to be a finger bone but was more curved than the average human finger. The Ambassadors learned that bear fingers and human fingers are very similar. After comparing the relic to a bear bone, Spurlock determined that it was, in fact, human. So why was it so curved? After further analysis, Spurlock decided that the bone belonged to a person suffering from rickets, a very common disease in medieval times. The bone inside the Monstrance of Saint Sebastian also told a medical story. Spurlock concluded that the metatarsal bone came from a person with a broken foot. She found a healed fracture mid-shaft and the swollen base of the bone also indicated that the person suffered an infection, most likely as a result of the break. Saja’s analysis was particularly challenging. While Spurlock was able to remove the relics from Countess Gertrude’s altar, Saja had to try to identify stones that were attached to the reliquary. In addition to the emeralds, garnet, and amethyst found on the altar, Saja discovered that many of the other supposed gemstones were actually colored pieces of glass. While this might sound disappointing, Saja explained that colored glass was considered very precious during Roman times. To view the two reliquaries studied by CMNH’s scientists, visit Treasures of Heaven, on view until January 17th.

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