Dazzlin craftsmanship -- 'The Art of Illumination'

There is something very forbidding about the structures the very rich built for themselves at the turn of the century. Who, for instance, can visualize himself as a guest in Henry Clay Frick's former private residence on New York's Fifth Avenue (now the home of the Frick Collection), and walking along those marble halls and through that lovely patio in search of a late-night glass of milk?

Or walking into the Pierpont Morgan Library here in search of a good book to read?

I, for one, cannot. Even with Mr. Frick's and Mr. Morgan's blessings, I would have thought twice about doing anything so frivolous in such stately and impressive buildings.

Those very qualities, however, make these former private structures marvelous places to view art, especially the art of previous centuries and far-away places. Both museums (and the Morgan Library must be considered one), are a joy to visit. Both have outstanding collections and mount excellent exhibitions. But I have seldom seen the Morgan Library used as appropriately as during its current outstanding exhibition of "Masterpieces of Mediaeval Painting; The Art of Illumination."

This exhibition -- consisting of roughly 100 of the library's finest mediaeval and Renaissance manuscripts, and 50 illuminated single pages, from the 6th through the 16th centuries -- resembles a collection of as many rare and beautiful jewels housed within a rich and handsomely crafted showcase.

Pictorially, these manuscripts are jewels, for their color and pigmentation are as rich as that of most other more "important" paintings many times their size. and they most certainly are precious in every sense of the word.

From our "modern" viewpoint, the sheer craftsmanship and attention to detail in these works is staggering. We aren't accustomed any more to any artist/craftsman devoting so much time and effort to the production of anything as small as six or so inches by nine. At least not without signing his name to every page, and without trying every possible technical shortcut.

It is this delight in craftsamanship and in rich materials which best characterizes this exhibition. Everything, from the gorgeous, frequently bejeweled covers, to the brilliantly painted pictures themselves, bespeaks pure joy in the designing and fashioning of beautiful things. And we are particularly fortunate in that the illuminations, protected by their bindings from the deterioration caused by exposure to light and air, now look very much as they did when completed so many centuries ago.

Try as I would, I couldn't pick a favorite. If one page of text and illustration was particularly rich in color, another was especially beautiful in design. Having found one whose drawing seemed to top all others, I almost immediatedly found another with such lovely details, (a tiny owl, perhaps, or an exquisitely executed castle), that my vote would go for it -- momentarily.

An neither could I find any that seemed significantly lower in quality than the others. But then, that is not suprising, considering that the library staff had over 1,000 of its own manuscripts to choose from.

The manuscripts were selected for display primarily for their artistic merits , as well as the importance and variety of their texts. Included among these are scientfic manuscripts, practical treatises on various aspects of mediaeval life, works by classical scholars, Bibles, and service books. In addition, there are histories and biographies, romances, fables and legends.

Especially noteworthy are the "Hours of Catherine of Cleves," the "Manafi alHawayan" (one of the most significant of all Persian manuscripts), the "Winchester Bible" leaf containing a depiction of King David, the "Lindau Gospels" (with its magnificantly jeweld binding), and the "Berthold Missal."

Looking at these treasures, one's fingers itch to pick them up and leaf through them. To run one's fingers over their rich surfaces. But, while that may not be possible, something else is, something that for the first time will make it possible for us to get know these works better.

And that is that 1,200 of the library's best examples of the art of illumination can now be viewed as color slides and microfilm. These are being made available to universities, museums, and libraries throughout the United States and Europe, and are accomapanied by a checklist complied by William Voekle, the Library's Associate Curator of Mediaeval and Renaissance Manuscripts.

Never before has such a substantial portion (over 20 percent) of the library's collection of manuscripts and miniatures been made available in color. Many of them are reporduced for the first time, and most have never been reproduced in color.

As a nonspecialist in this area, I welcome this chance to see more of these beautiful and generally inaccessible works of art. Even such a rich show as this one merely serves to whet one's appetite for more.

That wish to see these manuscripts in greater detail should be at least partially mollified by these 1,200 color reproductions. But I am also going to see this exhibition again. There are altogether too many good things in it for any person to assimilate in one visit.

This exhibition is a rare treat. It will continue at the Morgan Library through Feb. 8.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.