Illuminated Manuscripts & Other Enlightenments

Article excerpt

Many museums in these straitened days are turning to their storage areas to mount shows at minimal cost. No blockbusters, expensive middlemen, just the archives (their equivalent of our backlist) to cart up from downstairs, which eliminates special transportation costs and insurance fees. The Cleveland Museum of Art has done just that recently and put together an impressive small show titled "The Glory of the Painted Page" that drew upon their impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts: "missals" for the mass, "graduals" that contained liturgical music, and "psalters" for the psalms. The illustrated work might be a single letter or a single leaf from a larger text. In one 1420 gradual, for example, there was a vine creeping up the side of a page that wrapped around a putto (an angel), a rabbit, and a stork. In 1185 Geraldus Cambrensis wrote appropriately about the complexity of these colorful pages: "Look more keenly at the book and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid."

Many of the essays we publish tend to be in what is referred to as the longform and deal with substantial public or literary issues such as recent pieces on China, euphemisms, or an exploration about how to translate literary biographies into film. There are exceptions surely, such as Maureen McCoy's personal piece about her father's death that was a finalist for the National Magazine Awards. However, we do receive a great number of short, personal, reflective excursions about people and places. These mini-essays try to capture: a time (St. Louis, the 1950s), a personality (a turbaned man); a loved or hated parent or deserted spouse; a fragment of time that seems like a page from a book of hours; a sketch that resembles a biographical entry in a cyclopedia; or a series of facts about a town on Route 20 once famous and now passed by. Ben Miller's essay about an auction that ends both a way of life and a business and Paul Kramer's miniature portrait of a black man passing as a potentate in the 1940s are both intimate and graphic--as colorful as an illuminated page.

Our stories, of course, rely on these same sources, but seek to push us into another realm, to surround the hard world with the fictive glory of an illustrated missal, gradual, or psalter, thereby enlightening an interior world laid bare through language and imagination. The line between story and reportage has blurred in recent years and an argument can be made, for example, that the character of the idealist Simonson in Tolstoy's Resurrection is far less interesting than the real Positivist and Utopian William Frey, who migrated to America in search of "freedom" under his given name of Vladimir Konstantinovich Geins only to change it on arrival. Geins was, in fact, more vital and interesting than Tolstoy's re-creation of him. Poetry--at least under editor Judith Hall's hand--illuminates each page by its compression, by its vividness, and by its capacity to suggest larger worlds within smaller spaces. …