Gifts of the Past

Gift-giving flourished throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The exchange of precious objects marked important holidays and occasions through the year, helping to define political, familial, and spiritual relationships. A woman might receive an illuminated Book of Hours as a wedding present while noblemen sometimes exchanged precious rings as a sign of feudal loyalty. Both the laity and clergy gave gifts as a form of charity or a display of piety much like the gifts offered to the Christ child by the three Magi.

It is rare that we can state with any certainty an object’s role as a gift. However, based on medieval and Renaissance records, we know they often took the form of many of the works featured here: delicately illumined manuscripts, glittering miniatures, and skillfully crafted rings. These and similar surviving objects offer us a glimpse into diverse artistic practices and the taste of those who commissioned them. The works that have endured to the present day are the truest gifts of the past.