Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thomas Hoving’s Call to Action

At some time in each of our lives, we read a book that causes us to jump out of our seats, and MOVE! We must act now! For some of us, the prompt is climate change. It could be hunger, or the plight of our schools, or saving the river.

For me, the book was King of the Confessors, Thomas Hoving’s book on the Bury St. Edmund’s Cross. Not only was the book riveting — I read it through the night and part of the next day — but as soon as I reached the last page, I knew I had to do something.

A brief explanation. King of the Confessors is Hoving’s telling of the history and ownership of a 12th century altar cross made of walrus ivory and decorated with nearly a hundred carved figures and about as many inscriptions. Its past is a checkered one, as is Hoving’s own relationship with it. The book is a whodunit and a howdunnit: How Hoving heard about the Bury St. Edmund’s Cross, its history, its possible maker, how he bought it for the Metropolitan Museum, what other purchasers thought of the cross, and so on. Yes, I guess you have to be something of a medieval maven, but the object could have been anything with a tangled history. And the mind that made Thomas Hoving a brilliant curator also made him a brilliant storyteller.

My memories of this are as clear as if it were yesterday. I found the book in a used book sale and bought it for a buck because of my lingering interest in English history. Also, I have a much-loved old Nonesuch record of a mass written for the feast day of the translation [when his body was moved from one tomb to another] of St. Edward, King and Confessor, so there was that apparent strong association. Although I was to learn that Edward the Confessor has nothing to do with the story -- "King of the Confessors" has another meaning entirely.

By the time I was ten pages into the book it was clear that I was going to send out for pizza for dinner -- forget about cooking. Despite the fact that the story and its telling were fascinating, I found myself going back and going back to read chapters again, simply because they were so interesting and so much fun! I finally finished the book early the next afternoon, and I knew just what I had to do.

I called the school and made up some story to get Lydia out of class right away and on that lovely spring afternoon, we went to the Cloisters to look at the cross. Believe me — it was worth it. Even if the child protective people come after me for doing it, je ne regrette rien! (The statute of limitations on lying to school secretaries has expired now anyway.)

Bless Lydia — she seemed as interested in the cross and its story as I was. We explored other parts of the Cloisters and its collection and had a nice talk with a craftsman who was cleaning figures in a frieze telling the history of mankind. And on a sunny spring day, with flowering trees in blossom and a light breeze coming off the Hudson, there’s no better place to be than the Cloisters anyway.

1 comment:

Shataina said...

I am so lucky to have a mom who will lie in order to drag me out of class to go look at a random medieval artifact.