< Go to Homepage

The Art of Recycling in the Middle Ages

History By
Medieval Recycling
A fragment of a manuscript made in Germany in the late 14th century. It was part of a brightly illuminated copy of a popular anonymous treatise called ‘The Mirror of Human Salvation.’ (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

The next time you wheel your recycling bins to the corner—jam-packed full of empty plastic bottles, newspapers, and magazines—know that this is not a cross that only the modern man or woman has to bear.

It turns out that recycling, in some form, has been around since the Middle Ages. In particular, medieval artists were expert recyclers, taking older materials and using them as a springboard for new artistic endeavors. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has an exhibition through Sept. 18 that displays medieval art that shows signs of recycling, including pieces made of gold, ivory, stone, glass, and parchment. For example, the museum has manuscript fragments (see above), which were reused as a book wrapper at some later time. Per the museum:

“The ghosting of the book it adorned can still be seen in the dark, abraded portion that spans the two pages. By the 19th century, the value of the pages was recognized, and they were restored to their original state[.]”

To book a visit to the Walters Art Museum and learn more about the exhibit, click here. Browse some of the other works of art below.

Medieval Recycling
Imperial medallions, such as this one of Constantius II (reigned 350-361), were often mounted by their recipients to boast of their highly favored status in society. This piece of jewelry, minted in Nicomedia (Asia Minor), represents on the reverse the triumphant emperor in his chariot and was made using recycled coins (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
Medieval Recycling
This large marble head, possibly from an over-life-sized sculpture of Hercules, was excavated near the Florence baptistery and adapted and partly recarved to fit a medieval sculpture. Differences in the drill marks on the beard and the hair indicate that the head was probably modified in the Middle Ages. (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
Medieval Recycling
Recycled parchment with visible ghosting (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
Medieval Recycling
Recycled parchment with visible ghosting (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)