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Juggling the Middle Ages

October 16, 2018–March 3, 2019 | See how one tale has transformed over time, captivating medieval and modern audiences alike with its enduring messages. Art is miraculous!

A humble juggler-turned-monk struggles to think of a gift worthy of the Virgin Mary, before delivering a heartfelt juggling performance in front of her statue. If this story seems familiar, that’s because over the centuries it has inspired films, books, even an opera, and has parallels in an iconic Christmas carol. Through all these adaptations, however, the heart of the tale is never lost. At its core, the endlessly relatable story, called Le Jongleur de Notre Dame or Our Lady’s Tumbler, affirms the importance of art.

Featuring more than 100 objects, Juggling the Middle Ages explores the influence of the medieval world by focusing on this single story with a long-lasting impact. The exhibit follows the tale from its rediscovery by scholars in the 1870s to its modern interpretations in children’s books, offering viewers a look at a vast range of objects, including stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, household objects, and vintage theater posters.

Why have the Middle Ages exerted such a great influence on modern European and American identities, as expressed in architecture, art, music, and other media? This exhibition allows viewers to consider the role of the Middle Ages in the fashioning of modernity—from films rooted in Arthurian legend, to Gothic Revival architecture—through the lens of one powerful tale.


Dumbarton Oaks will host a series of events for all ages in conjunction with Juggling the Middle Ages. All events take place at Dumbarton Oaks unless otherwise noted. Please check back closer to the events for further details.

Juggling the Middle Ages Exhibition Opening Event
Thursday, October 18, 5:30 p.m.
Celebrate the opening of Juggling the Middle Ages at Dumbarton Oaks with a curatorial presentation and special reception, featuring live juggling performances! Jan Ziolkowski, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University and director of Dumbarton Oaks, will begin the evening with a lecture and an audience discussion session. Access to the Galleries and a reception on the Music Room Terrace with beer, wine, and light fare will follow.

Lecture: “What, in the World, Is Medievalism?”
Thursday, October 25, 5:30–7:30 p.m.
The President of the International Society for the Study of Medievalism and author of Medievalism: A Manifesto, Professor Richard Utz (School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech) takes a democratic approach to medieval studies and public scholarship. This lecture will address modern engagement with medieval culture, echoing the theme of the exhibition.

Family Day
Saturday, October 27, 2:00–4:00 p.m.
Family Day is a great opportunity for children of all ages to learn about our Juggling the Middle Ages exhibition through hands-on activities, including juggling! Families can enjoy two live juggling performances, arts and crafts tables, and book readings, followed by the chance to view the exhibition. Live performances will take place at 2:30 and 3:30. Light snacks and refreshments will be available.

An Afternoon with R. O. Blechman
Saturday, November 3, 2:00–4:00 p.m.
The creator of what are now considered by many to be the earliest graphic novels, R. O. Blechman, will discuss his first work, The Juggler of Our Lady. This cartoon retelling of the medieval legend was first published in 1953 and later adapted into an award-winning short animated film. Blechman’s innovative style has become iconic over his career, which has spanned six decades. The American illustrator was the focus of a 2003 MoMA exhibition, given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Cartoonists Society in 2011, and inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2012. A book of his essays, An Illustrator’s Word, will be published next year.

Lecture: “The Virgin and the Juggler: Mary East and West”
Thursday, November 8, 5:30–7:30 p.m.
Annemarie Weyl Carr, professor of art history emerita at Southern Methodist University, will explore the Mary who steps into the story of the Juggler of Notre Dame and the form of the Juggler’s devotion to her to watch how a kind of beneficial tale that emerged in the East became such an evocative emblem of the medieval West.

An Afternoon with Tomie dePaola
Saturday, November 10, 2:00–3:30 p.m.
Award-winning author and illustrator Tomie dePaola will offer a reading of his celebrated children’s book The Clown of God, followed by a Q&A session moderated by Jewell Stoddard, children’s literature expert and retired Director of Children’s Services for Politics and Prose Bookstore. DePaola has produced over 260 books, including the children’s classic Strega Nona (Caldecott Honor Book, 1976). In 2011, he was recognized with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for “substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children” over the course of his career. Join us before this event for a children’s program of Tomie dePaola books and activities at the DC Public Library Georgetown Branch.

Evenings at Dumbarton Oaks
Thursday, November 15, 6:00–8:00 p.m.
Get a jump on the holidays at Evenings at Dumbarton Oaks! Explore our new exhibition and unfold the long-lasting impact of a single story, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame or Our Lady’s Tumbler, on iconic adaptations such as Christmas carols and stories. Transport yourself to a European Christmas market with holiday-inspired snacks, winter-themed drinks and ales, live juggling demonstrations, and (of course) shopping! Everything in the store will be 15% off and 20% off for garden season pass holders.

Panel: “Boutet de Monvel’s Joan of Arc and the Beauty of Books in Fin-de-Siècle Paris”
Wednesday, December 12, 2:00–4:00 p.m., West Building Lecture Hall, National Gallery of Art
An expert panel will explore French medievalism at the turn of the twentieth century by examining the particular cases of Boutet de Monvel’s Joan of Arc and book arts, along with the greater phenomenon of medievalism during the Belle Époque. The panel will take place in the West Building Lecture Hall, accessible via the Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue entrance. Registration is not required

Lecture: “Anatole France and Gaston Paris”
Thursday, December 13, 6:00–7:30 p.m.
Michel Zink, member and Permanent Secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (Institut de France), will deliver a lecture on fin-de-siècle Parisian culture and French writers Gaston Paris and Anatole France, preceded by a gallery viewing from 5:30 to 6:00 p.m. An expert on medieval French literature, Zink is the author of a number of publications, including Bienvenue au Moyen Âge and Nature et poésie au Moyen Âge.

Meet David and Mark Shannon
Saturday, December 15, 10:30–11:30 a.m. at the DC Public Library Georgetown Branch.
Hosted by the DC Public Library Georgetown Branch, brothers and author/illustrator team Mark and David Shannon will offer a reading of their book, The Acrobat and the Angel. This beautifully written and illustrated story will delight young audience members, who will also be able to engage with the Shannons and participate in other fun activities after the reading.

Film Screening of “The Young Juggler,” Starring Tony Curtis
Wednesday, January 23, 6:00–7:00 p.m.
“Some Like It Hot” came out in 1959, and “Spartacus” in 1960. At the pinnacle of his career, Tony Curtis starred in a telefilm that he coproduced. Though not on a par with either film just mentioned, this 51-minute television segment offers an unusual take on the juggler story to show off Curtis’s looks and talents. It makes the original character into a lady’s man who when pursued by vengeful cuckolds betrays his best friend. Since airing on March 29, 1960, the film has not been screened. Come and enjoy time travel back nearly sixty years—and perhaps a few laughs, both intended and not so.

Lecture: “Mary, a Multivalent Figure and the Mother of All”
Thursday, January 24, 6:00–7:30 p.m.
Ioli Kalavrezou, Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Art History at Harvard University, will present the different dimensions and themes that define Mary and her role as the MΗΤΗΡ ΘΕΟΥ, the Mother of God, in the art and theology of Byzantium. The talk will draw attention to the many and diverse qualities of her character and focus on those aspects that gave her the position she held for many centuries in Orthodox Christianity and still holds today.

Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame: Concert Performance with the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program
Sunday, January 27, 4:00–5:30 p.m.
This onetime concert by young artists of the Washington National Opera transports us back a century to the golden age of opera. The key figure is Jules Massenet, commercially the most successful composer of the Belle Époque but artistically less well-known than younger contemporaries in France such as Claude Debussy or Gustave Charpentier. Massenet composed Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame, the best-known musical drama version of the medieval story. Flanking arias from this opera are other songs about minstrels and monasteries. The result is sure to be a very special performance.

Lecture: “Literature as Resistance: Dutch Clandestine Literature (1940–1945)”
Thursday, February 7, 6:00–7:30 p.m.
Director of the Institute of European Studies and Dutch Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley, Associate Professor Jeroen Dewulf will lecture on clandestine Dutch-language literature during the Second World War. Dewulf’s books cover subjects ranging from the transatlantic slave trade to resistance publications under the Nazis to (post)colonial culture. His broad expertise promises to make this an engaging talk.
This event is presented with the support of the General Delegation of the Government of Flanders to the USA. Reception to follow.

Concert: Eya and Niccolo Seligmann
Sunday, February 24, 2:00–2:30 and 3:30–4:00 p.m.
DC-based women’s trio Eya: Ensemble for Medieval Music team up with virtuoso improvisor Niccolo Seligmann for a musical retelling of The Juggler of Our Lady.  Humorous, sumptuous, raucous, and tender, this is a one-of-a kind program featuring plainchant, 13th-century polyphony, and instrumental improvisation. 
This engaging and family-friendly experience will take place in the Music Room. Be sure to join Seligmann for a medieval instrument demonstration after the first performance and come to a Q&A with the full ensemble after the last performance.


This translation of Anatole France’s adaptation of the medieval French poem ”The Juggler of Notre Dame” reproduces illustrations by Maurice Lalau

This translation of Anatole France’s adaptation of the medieval French poem “The Juggler of Notre Dame” reproduces illustrations by Malatesta.

Cooney’s retelling of the medieval poem of the juggler helps young readers to appreciate how they can offer their services, no matter how humble.

The line art in this coloring book was prepared from illustrations accompanying adaptations and retellings of the medieval French poem “The Juggler of Notre Dame.”


Harvard Magazine: Sophia Nguyen “The Juggler’s Tale: A Dumbarton Oaks exhibition connects ‘an enchanted past’ to the human condition” (November–December 2018)

Harvard Magazine: John S. Rosenberg, “Pictures of an Exhibition: ‘Juggling’ literary history at Dumbarton Oaks” (October 16, 2018)

Notre Dame Magazine: John Nagy, “D.C. museum tells an old Notre Dame story” (October 25, 2018) Richard Utz, “Benign Medievalisms: The Juggling the Middle Ages Exhibit at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks

Washington Examiner: Nic Rowan, “Divine Juggling” (February 12, 2019)

Richard Utz, review of Jan Ziolkowski, The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, vols. 1–2, The Medieval Review (October 11, 2019)

David Ganz, “Quest Narratives: The American Search for the Middle Ages,” review of Jan Ziolkowski, The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, Times Literary Supplement (October 18, 2019)