Exhibition Review by Dr Blair Apgar

If I Were a Rich Man: Art and Class on Display at the Cloisters

Rich Man, Poor Man: Art, Class, and Commerce in a Late Medieval Town, The Cloisters, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
March 6, 2023August 20, 2023
Curated by Melanie Holcomb, Curator and Manager of Collection Strategy, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Met.

Figure 1. Beham, Sebald, Peasants’ Brawl from ‘The Peasants’ Feast’ or ‘The Twelve Months’, 1547, engraving, 5 x 7.3 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1966.

The exhibition Rich Man, Poor Man, on display in Gallery 10 at the Met Cloisters, sets out to explore the emergence of distinctly middle-class taste in late medieval England. The exhibition consists of over fifty objects—ranging from wood carvings, prints, textiles and more—produced between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries and plucked from various (but mostly European) localities.

Aside from the typical wall text and labels, there are contemporaneous accounts of society interspersed throughout the exhibition. Accompanying the display of silver spoons is perhaps one of the most enlivening captions throughout the entire exhibition; it notes the observation of a sixteenth-century German visitor to England who remarked upon the prevalence of silver across the social classes. The label text muses that the material was a practical one as “English currency was so volatile that silver goods became a much safer way to store wealth.” These vignettes help weave these objects closer together while implicitly acknowledging the difference between judgements from those within the group, and those from without.

The highlight of the show is the collection of wood carvings acquired by the museum in the 1970s but only recently identified as having belonged to Henry Hamlyn, twice-mayor and prominent businessman of Exeter. The carvings were produced in the first half of the sixteenth century to adorn the façade of Hamlyn’s home, acting as decorative corbels for each level of building; the jester, peasant, and quarrelling couple were at street level while musicians and other figures were above. Now bare, they were originally painted in bright colours and remained a notable landmark of the city centre until the 1830s, when the home, then known as King John Tavern, was demolished. Though the carvings are spread throughout the gallery, a small print of a nineteenth-century watercolour which records the façade before the building’s demolition was useful in imagining how they would have appeared in situ.

The exhibition traces the sculpture’s inspiration back to Morlaix, a city in Brittany with which Hamlyn had commercial ties. This, an exhibition placard suggests, may have been Hamlyn’s attempt to advertise and promote his cross-Channel success. Visitors to the exhibition might wonder what the fledgling middle class of Exeter would have gained from replicating a thoroughly French style made by Breton workers,[1] whether it be an appeal to the highest class, or an attempt at differentiation from the lowest.[2] The lack of such class-critical inquiries as above, particularly as they relate to audience reception, renders these carvings woefully underutilised and leaves the visitor unable to venture beyond the exhibition’s historical analysis of the objects’ characters.

In all promotional material, the exhibition positions itself as a material exploration of the emergent middle class of England as exemplified by one Henry Hamlyn.[3] While it successfully sketches a portrait of the nascent middle class’s developing tastes in and around England during this period, it lacks the depth of thought one might expect from a world-class institution such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is clear, however, that while it delivers on this promise on the surface, it does not delve deeper into questions of collective identity, the vilification of poverty, and the conceptual development of wealth as piety. Furthermore, because there are no objects explicitly from the lower classes during this period, nor of the wealthiest (though the Museum’s treasury is in the next gallery over which provides its own interesting comparison), the average visitor is left without context with which they may draw their own conclusions.

The exhibition reflects on the interplay between success, wealth, and the incipient identities of this period, noting that “Exeter’s leading men sought to identify themselves through a highly specific version of urban, Christian masculinity” who viewed these goods as an extension of this identity. Thus, the objects should reflect the owners’ practicality, piety, and restraint. While the exhibition does not directly ponder Hamlyn’s role in this social group, as a twice-appointed mayor of the city, one may assume his prominence manifested socially as much as it did politically. 

Figure 2. Isenbrant, Adriaen, Man Weighing Gold, ca. 1515-20, oil on wood,  50.8 x 30.5 cm with added strips of 4.5 cm at left and right. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931.

Figure 3. Left: Architectural Support with a Flute-Player, right: Architectural Support with a Bagpiper, 1524-1549, oak, 255.3 × 19.1 × 24.1 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Author’s photo. 

Furthermore, in an exhibition which freely borrows its title from the parable in Luke 16, a pointed condemnation of wealth and an exaltation of the poor, there is little evidence of class-critical analysis which could have furnished visitors with perspective on this shift in class dynamics.[4] There is a glimpse of the exhibition’s ambitions in the selection of prints on display which depict a variety of stereotypes of the poor—some of the same which appear in the Hamlyn wood carvings. The accompanying wall text ponders whether the subjects of the derisive carvings and prints were ‘equally amused’ by the wealthier citizens’ mockery of their plights. This reflection proves the most powerful of the whole exhibition as it acknowledges the power dynamics at play in these depictions. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not meaningfully expand on this analysis. A more class-conscious framing of these objects (and their owners) could have fostered a discourse that interrogated the deeper forces which stimulated a class of individuals to create this new identity: what were they shedding from their previous class identity, and what did they gain?

Though the exhibition utilises some interesting online devices, including a fascinating exploration of the ‘Fool’,[5] there are numerous challenges which prevent their successful implementation in the galleries. Though there is a small QR code for visitors to scan, the link listed next to it, as of 25 July 2023, directs to a non-existent website, essentially negating any digital component that would otherwise enhance a visitor’s experience. In a way, this stands as an apt metaphor for the exhibition itself: in theory, ambitious and reflective of new trends, but in practice, short of the mark.

Figure 4. Current display of Rich Man, Poor Man: Art, Class, and Commerce in a Late Medieval Town at the MET Cloisters. Author’s photo.

Dr Blair Apgar finished their PhD at the University of York in 2021 on the material culture of Matilda of Canossa and its relationship to the eleventh-century papal reform. They are now an Assistant Professor in the History & Geography Department at Elon University in North Carolina, as well as a fellow in the NEH-funded Institute of the Immersive Global Middle Ages.


Article Information
Blair Apgar, "If I Were a Rich Man: Art and Class on Display at the Cloisters,” Aspectus, no. 5 (Fall 2023): 7174. DOI: 10.15124/yao-8056-m046