By focusing on the Anglo-Saxon ‘Alfred Jewel’ through the lens of historical materiality this paper considers ‘Otherness’ as a concept temporally achieved and expressed through an analytical understanding of objects and their constituent parts. Objects that once were materially conceived and constructed for a functionality long lost or forgotten, that combine costly new, practically recycled, and symbolically re-purposed materials, thereby express the ‘Otherness’ of a society and culture remote from the present. However, through their continued existence such objects provide a conduit for understanding of such ‘Otherness’, and through their present-day ‘perfected’ replication modern-day sensibilities provide for their renewed and continued, if diverse and multitudinous, cloned lives.
The treasury of the former convent of St Servatius at Quedlinburg in eastern Germany is a repository of numerous precious objects of ancient and/or Near Eastern origin. Devout traditions evolved over the course of the Middle Ages that assigned Christological, Marian, and other sacred identities to many of these objects because of their perceived antiquity and exotic provenance. In the 18th century, scholars sought to debunk these ‘superstitions’ using the epistemological tools of the Enlightenment. At the same time, they created a new set of fictitious associations for these works, placing them in the service of nascent German nationalism.
For many modern viewers, sculptures of the Black Madonna, the term referring to the depiction of the Virgin Mary with dark-coloured skin, are understood as powerful and, at times, ‘other’. The intrigue of the Black Madonna extends to contemporary literary fiction, most notably in the work of Toni Morrison, with new-age and feminist literature placing the Black Madonna within a canon of antique sculptures of mother-goddesses. The Black Madonna is often approached today through the modern understanding of race. Yet in the pre-modern period, Black Madonnas were perceived quite differently. Indeed, the Black Madonna was historically connected to the Holy Land through a Biblical verse appearing in Song of Songs, in which the allegorical Bride declares that she is dark-skinned due to her sacred birthplace. This interpretation has been applied to the Black Madonna in contemporary culture, as her image has become a symbol of the plight of underprivileged or ‘othered’ women.