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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

Gapers Block

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Gunsaulus Hall at the Art Institute of Chicago is the corridor most visitors rush through on their way to somewhere else. They seldom pause or spare more than the barest of glances for the weapons, suits of armor and decorative arts that line the walls. But one of the strangest objects on display in the museum can be found in this hall. There, among the old platters and goblets, is a reliquary housing a tooth of John the Baptist.

The shrine is approximately a foot and a half tall and made of silver gilt. In appearance the shape resembles a church balanced on a stem base. Mounted within the church-like receptacle, the tooth is encased in a crystal capsule. Peer closely, however, to see the tooth, because although the relic is visible, the faceted crystal container obscures as much as it reveals.

According to historians, the reliquary dates to the late 14th century and was part of the renown Guelph Treasure. Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, was the first great collector and patron of the arts among the Guelph dynasty of German rulers. He reigned in the 12th century and went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem between 1172-3, bringing home a number of relics from the Holy Land. Goldsmiths were then appointed by Henry to create appropriate containers for these precious items. Henry the Lion's descendents and successors frequently continued the family's artistic patronage, and habit for collecting, through the centuries.

But gazing at the reliquary in the neutral museum surroundings, behind glass and covered with a very fine layer of dust, my only thought is, Whose poor tooth is this?

So many centuries later and so far removed from its original environment, the shrine becomes diminished. Instead of a holy relic, it seems to be a mere relic of the past, inspiring as much belief as a curiosity from Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Maybe that's too harsh, but the next time you're sprinting through Gunsaulus Hall on your way to the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Art Institute, spare a moment for the tooth of John the Baptist.


You can view an image of the reliquary with the tooth of John the Baptist on the Art Institute of Chicago website. But the object is so much better when seen in person. The museum is free Thursday and Friday evenings through Labor Day, 5-9pm. For more visitor information, visit the museum website.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . She may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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