Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: An Exhibition Held at the Baltimore Museum of Art, January 27-March 13

By Walters Art Gallery | Go to book overview

NOTE TO THE GENERAL VISITOR

Generally speaking, books do not lend themselves ideally to public exhibition, for their mission is a personal one. They are designed by their very nature and physical construction to address the reader privately and as his mood dictates. Even in this present day of mechanical production and vast editions and of large public libraries, this is still the great charm, the unfailing solace, the real power of the book. It is for this reason, too, that the possession of fine books, the collection of rare volumes, is by far the most absorbing and the most passionate of all forms of collecting. The delight of the book collector in his treasures, his shameless boasting as he shows them to his colleagues, his unending personal joy, not only in poring over text and picture, but just in turning the pages, stroking the bindings, weighing the volumes in his hand--these obsessions have been extolled or ridiculed--as the case may be-- ever since the days of Seneca and Lucian.

This exhibition is an attempt to share with the general public some of the rarest delights that have ever come to book-lovers. It is true that for such a display a few of the pleasures must be sacrificed. Even books that have been in daily use for a thousand years would deteriorate rapidly under the appreciative but uninformed thumbing of a crowd. So the visitor must be content to imagine the soft touch of the vellum, ranging from velvety suede to silken smoothness. He must imagine the endless diversity as the leaves are turned: in the earliest manuscripts, the succession of majestic pages of superb script lit here and there with gold--or sometimes even written entirely in the burnished metal, the great ornamental pages which initiate the text with monagrammized words of the most inconceivable intricacy and ingenuity, the illustrations monumental enough in concept to be the designs for frescos. In the gothic manuscripts he would find an intricacy of another kind. In addition to the gracious illustration of the main story, he would discover a thousand whimsical diversions, unconnected with the text, and addressed to himself alone--fantastic line-endings, monsters and grotesques, humorous figures playing in the margins, a world-full of incidents: children at their games, women at their work, nobles at their pleasures. So abundant would be the decorations that they could not be seen all at once. Each day when the book was handled some new surprise would be discovered--and there would be enough to last for years--a lifetime of refreshing pleasure in a single book. The renaissance volumes he would find more sober. As he turned the pages they would present to his eye the clarity and balance and serenity which befitted the book-room of an intellectual. In these days libraries were bigger and books easier to come by than in the Middle Ages. Each volume was expected to yield its pleasures only sporadically. And so, despite the individual beauty of their vellum and illumination and calligraphy, the general nature of these renaissance books is closer to the character of fine books of today.

Thus, with the help of his imagination, the visitor will realize that the pages displayed are but a pause in the fluttering of storied leaves. He will remember that these same leaves have been turned by generation after generation of book collectors, of ladies at their diversion, of scholars at their studies, of monks at their devotions. And before anyone of these touched hand to the pages, they were spread out as flat sheets of softly dressed vellum on the work tables of the monastery atelier, or, for the later ones, in the studio of some duly enrolled members of the Guild of St. Luke, patron of artists. And there the painstaking labor upon the book began: the careful ruling off of the leaves to guide the writing and to preserve a regular format throughout; the copying out of the text in a fine, even hand, by men who spent their lives forming fair letters; the insertion of the rubrics and the ornamental initial letters; the

-xi-

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Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: An Exhibition Held at the Baltimore Museum of Art, January 27-March 13
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Addenda and Corrigenda to the Catalogue ii
  • Title Page iii
  • List of Lenders v
  • Foreword vii
  • Note to the General Visitor xi
  • Catalogue 1
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