On the 25th February 2019, the Society of Antiquaries of London hosted a one-day conference on Secret Spaces: Medieval Sacristies, Vestries, Treasure Rooms and their Contents. The aim of this conference is to introduce the subject of ecclesiastical treasure houses to both the academic world and the wider public. You can now watch the entire conference from your very own sofa – scroll down for all the recordings.
Treasure houses take the form of small buildings attached as annexes to the cathedrals and churches which they served. Their function as store houses of the priceless ecclesiastical treasure belonging to the church meant that they were accessible to only a few privileged individuals but many are resplendent pieces of architecture in their own right. Recently Yves Gallet, in discussing an ambitious vault within the thirteenth-century treasure house of Saint-Urbain, Troyes, noted that ‘it is curious that they should have placed such a spectacular and up-to-date ornament in a place where it was never going to be seen’. Notable treasure houses in Britain are attached to the cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, Wells, and Bristol, to name but a few. However, medieval ecclesiastical treasure houses existed everywhere in the medieval West and this will be reflected in the conference, which will bring together scholars from different countries. Ecclesiastical treasure houses also stored money, the presence of which necessitated the activities of depositing, guarding and counting. The ecclesiastical treasure house thus occupied a fault line between two opposing ideologies in medieval Christian thinking, the first condemning the accumulation of worldly treasure and the second promoting its use for God’s service.
Medieval treasure houses conserved, displayed and inventorised precious objects in a way that resembles these processes in our museums today. During the last twenty years academic interest in medieval ecclesiastical treasure has grown and has changed direction. Interest in the objects, which previously focussed on style and craftsmanship, has developed, encompassing the issues of how they were used and what they meant to medieval Christians.
A conference devoted to the medieval museums that housed these precious materials is long over-due and is particularly urgent at the moment. Ironically, the interest in the objects that they conserved has resulted recently in such treasures being removed to new museums, leaving their former places of protection in need of protection themselves. This conference brought these buildings to light but will also be concerned with the sumptuous arts in relation to medieval practices of collection, conservation and display.