Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations at the National Gallery of Art and the Saint John's Bible-A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

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Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations at the National Gallery of Art and The Saint John's Bible-A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

When we open our Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals, we typically encounter text only. Any adornment in these volumes is limited to the most reductive line drawings. Two exhibitions in the Baltimore-Washington area in 2009 reminded viewers of a different attitude toward devotional texts: the impulse to honor them with painting and illumination. Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations at the National Gallery of Art offered a large selection of single pages and "cuttings" (details cut from larger pages), along with some intact volumes, all from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. The Saint John's Bible-A Modern Vision through Medieval Methods at the Walters Art Museum showcased manuscript volumes from the Walters Art Museum collection and unbound pages from The St. John's Bible, a project initiated in 2000 to create the first major illuminated Bible since the Renaissance. It was enlightening to compare pages created across such a gulf in time and to recognize that the urge to decorate the text is still alive.

The pages and cutting in the National Gallery exhibition were taken from devotional texts created across Western Europe. Each of these was originally bound into a book or was part of a larger page. Most of the show was drawn from the National Gallery's Rosenwald Collection (comprising twenty thousand prints, drawings, and manuscript pages). Some pages were removed from large Bibles or immense choir books created for corporate worship in monastic communities; others were excised from smaller books, such as Psalters or Books of Hours, intended for individual use. We know the painters of some of these pages, either by name or by association with a particular work or location. But other artists are anonymous.

The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks (1265/74), by the Italian "Master of Imola," was part of a Gradual (see illustration). Along the bottom of the page Dominican monks beseech the Virgin for her prayers. In the central panel the Virgin reclines beside the Christ child, a tiny ox and ass in attendance. On the left Christ receives his first bath; on the right Joseph gazes toward angel choirs across the top of the page. They burst into joyous song, perhaps the Offertory for the Christmas Mass at daybreak (music and text for which are visible through the translucent parchment.) The intact volume would have stood open on a choral lectern, legible by all members of the monastic choir gathered around it, and the page is emblematic of the significance of such books in the liturgical life of the monastery.

By contrast St. Luke (1425-35) is from a much smaller volume created for private use. From a French Book of Hours, the image depicts St. Luke seated at his writing stand, his Gospel book open before him, his ink pot and writing tools ready at hand. …