• Exhibition Notes
  • Jane Whitehead
  • December 5, 2016
Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections

Houghton Library, Harvard University: Manuscripts from Church & Cloister
September 12–December 10, 2016

McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety
September 12–December 11, 2016

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Italian Renaissance Books
September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017

While hunting for rare volumes on vacation in Venice in 1890, the art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840–1924) discovered a French sixteenth-century manuscript book of hours illuminated with exquisite miniature paintings. The artist was unknown at the time, but Mrs. Gardner knew quality when she saw it. Now identified as the work of Jean Bourdichon (ca. 1457–1521), court painter to four French kings, from Louis XI to Francis I, the book is one of the highlights of the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.

The Crucifixion. Leaf from the Potocki Psalter. Paris, France, ca. 1250. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 57.707. Gift of the Schaeffer Galleries in memory of Dr. Georg Swarzenski.

Gardner was one of many wealthy, art-loving Bostonians who imported medieval manuscripts to New England in the late 1800s, along with other less portable artifacts including sculpture, ironwork, and panel paintings. Thanks to this concentration of riches, often gathered first in private collections and later donated to institutions, including public libraries and colleges, Beyond Words presents what is billed as the largest array of medieval manuscripts ever shown in North America, drawn from nineteen Boston-area institutions.

When the historian of medieval art Jeffrey Hamburger came to Harvard University in 2000, he was familiar with Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Venetian find, now known as the Bourdichon Hours. He suspected that a wealth of medieval material lay dormant in Boston collections, much of it inadequately catalogued and unknown to scholars. With William Stoneman, then librarian of Houghton Library, Harvard’s rare book repository, he began a systematic trawl of local institutional collections that netted around three thousand medieval manuscripts and fragments dating from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries.

Along the way, Hamburger and Stoneman joined forces with Italian specialist Anne-Marie Eze, then associate curator at the Gardner; Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America; and Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen Museum at Boston College. The five collaborated as cocurators of the exhibition and coeditors of the 375-page, fully illustrated catalogue, with entries by eighty-three international experts.

Through their selection of over 250 books, single leaves, and cuttings, the curators tell the history of the book over the course of a thousand years in Europe. They bring to light the variety and richness of medieval material in Boston-area collections, and explore the tastes and preoccupations of the Brahmin collectors of the Gilded Age.

Each of the three venues highlights a particular kind of book production and readership. Houghton displays “Manuscripts from Church and Cloister,” showing books mainly made by and for monks and nuns from the seventh century through the twelfth century. “Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety” at the McMullen explores the growth of a lay readership and the role of secular and religious books in medieval society, and “Italian Renaissance Books” at the Gardner charts the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy, and the importance of the Renaissance humanist library as a storehouse of intellectual and visual culture.

The display at Houghton Library focuses on the central role of books in the lives of medieval monks and nuns. Books created in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of monasteries and convents ensured the transmission of classical literature and learning, as well as preserving and annotating religious texts and promoting practical guidelines for the good life. 


Hand-made books were expensive and time-consuming to make, and their bindings were often fitted with chains to ensure that they did not wander from their proper place, as four chained volumes of genealogies and sermons from Germany and northern Italy attest. Another rare survival is an ingenious medieval bookmark—a long strip of parchment with a little rotating wheel that allowed the reader to mark the precise column and line where he or she left off.

A line drawing on a page from a German twelfth-century copy of a Gospel commentary gives a glimpse of the human relationships and labor behind this communal scholarly effort. The scribe—a tonsured, robed monk—is shown kneeling in deference to his abbot, while presenting the volume he has just finished. Above his head is a Latin poem, thanking the abbot for keeping him busy, and assuring him that “it is for sure a pleasure to copy, for it is distasteful to be idle.”

A document from the Cistercian abbey of Saint Mary at Sawley in present-day Lancashire, England, shows the origin of the term indenture. The jagged-edged parchment from around 1265, with black wax seal still attached, concerns an exchange of lands. An indenture was made from a single sheet of parchment with two identical records of the agreement, notes William Stoneman in his catalogue entry. The sheet was then cut along a zigzag line, or into teeth, hence indenture. Each party retained one part, and in case of future disagreement they could be matched to prove authenticity.

If the indenture shows the importance of mundane matters such as land management to ecclesiastical institutions, three large leaves from the Noyon Missal (France, ca. 1225–50), show the artistry with which texts for the celebration of the sacred mystery of the Mass could be adorned. Elaborate illuminations show Gregory the Great against a burnished gold ground, seated at his writing desk, inspired by the dove of the Holy Spirit. An athletic figure of Christ rises from the tomb, and allegorical figures of Ecclesia and Synagogaflank the Lamb of God, the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. On the most elaborately illuminated leaf, with the prayers for the consecration of the host, even the notation of the Gregorian chant is highlighted in gold.

Across town at the McMullen Museum on the Brighton Campus of Boston College, while there are still plenty of Bibles and other religious texts on show, the focus is on the place of books in medieval society beyond the monastery walls. The growing importance of visual demonstration in matters of both faith and science fueled an expansion of imagery, ranging from exquisite, jewel-like miniatures by master painters to rough and ready anatomical diagrams showing physicians how to treat specific ailments by bleeding.

The McMullen recently moved to new premises at the former Boston archbishop’s residence, at 2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. With its light-filled atrium, expanded exhibition space, and roof terrace with spectacular views of downtown Boston, the museum is well equipped to host the largest section of Beyond Words.

The opening gallery offers a primer in manuscript book making. A video shows the laborious stages, from the preparation of parchment from sheep, goat, and calf hides, to the ruling of pages prior to writing, and the underdrawing and gold-leaf application that went before the addition of the final, brilliant colors—derived from ground minerals and organic plant materials, usually mixed with egg white to make tempera.

Exhibits in the opening section show manuscripts in various phases of production: parchment pages nested into “gatherings” before binding, sheets showing underdrawing, an instruction manual on the use of various scripts, and an unfinished Gospel page in which the scribe has left a large Q-shaped void for the addition of an illuminated capital letter. “These manuscripts are not simply vessels for text and image—they are material objects in which every feature was crafted with a view to their function and expressive purpose,” said Hamburger in a phone conversation about the ideas behind the exhibition.

Medieval book production was a highly collaborative process. Illuminators often relied on model books to give their productions the authority, authenticity, and accuracy considered crucial in the realm of religious texts. On display are two tiny, exquisite drawings from early fifteenth-century Prague showing the heads of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation. With her high forehead, narrow chin, and pursed, rosy-red lips, the Virgin Mary reflects contemporary ideals of courtly beauty. The drawings would have been part of a collection showing heads of holy figures to serve as models for use by artists in illuminations and other media, such as panel painting.

Two rare surviving examples of complete model books—a late fifteenth-century French compendium of botanical and costume studies, and a book of bird designs for a moralized bestiary—are among selected exhibits accompanied by wall-mounted iPads. These allow viewers to “turn the pages” of a complete digital facsimile and so overcome an inherent limitation of book exhibits, the fact that only one opening can be displayed at a time. Set at half brightness, so as not to outshine the originals, the tablets enable not only exploration of other, hidden, pages, but also enlargement of details from the page on display. Since much of the fascination of these manuscripts is in the weird and playful creatures that flourish in their margins, the chance to see them in high magnification is a real bonus.

Technology also brings to life the music preserved in one of the McMullen’s treasures, a fourteenth-century German Franciscan antiphonal. This well-thumbed compendium of music used by monks for their daily services shows signs of wear and tear, with wax stains on some pages, says Michael Noone, chair of the Music Department at Boston College. Thanks to its accompanying iPad station, visitors can access video of seven chants from the volume, sung by a Spanish group specializing in medieval music performance.

With so much material to digest, the smartphone-accessible online audio guide, narrated by the curators, is an invaluable resource. In one of her lively contributions, Anne-Marie Eze describes an intriguing survival from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, an image collaged from devotional books looted by French soldiers during Napoleon’s occupation of Rome at the end of the eighteenth century, showing the Last Judgment. “When people think of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment they think of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, so it’s very interesting to see an almost contemporary image of the same subject, and to think about the interrelations between monumental art and illumination in books,” she says.

Recently removed from its constricting 1969 binding for conservation, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s exquisite Bourdichon Hours is displayed here sheet by sheet—offering a rare chance to see the original miniatures side by side. In his audio guide narration, Hamburger draws attention to Bourdichon’s skillful deployment of varied light effects and his use of elaborate architectural frames to mediate between the viewers’ space and the dramatic scenes of Christ’s passion and other devotional images.

The third-floor Monan Gallery at the McMullen takes the visitor into the realms of power and politics, and courtly pastimes including hawking and the tournament. Highlights are the first conduct manual for women written by a woman, by the prolific fifteenth-century French author Christine de Pizan; and a magnificent thirty-four-foot-long illuminated French roll telling the history of the world from the Creation to the time of its production in the 1470s.

Among the three venues hosting Beyond Words, the Gardner offers the most elaborately designed presentation, using paintings, furniture, and classical antiquities from the collection to evoke an Italian Renaissance humanist scholarly studiolo, and deploying scrims with life-size photographic reproductions of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library to summon the architecture of sixteenth-century Florence. In the age of digital media, when many question the future of the printed book, this segment of Beyond Words invites visitors to think back the 1400s when the invention of printing signaled the beginning of the end for the hand-painted, hand-written manuscript.

The show charts the humanist book from its origins in Florence around 1400 to its flowering in Venice at the turn of the sixteenth century. Alongside the humanist bestsellers—Boccaccio’s Decameron, Dante’s Divina commedia, Petrarch’s Trionfi—are books of mathematical games, maps, and views of whales and sharks and other exotic creatures, as well as religious works for both public and private devotion. Among the Italian Renaissance books recently discovered in Boston-area collections are a prayer book of Pope Julius III (r. 1550–55) and a book used in the preparation of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel, painted by Vincent Raymond (d. 1557), the first official illuminator to the popes, as cocurator Anne-Marie Eze notes in her introductory catalogue essay. As Eze also notes, Isabella Stewart Gardner, fascinated as she was by historical art patrons who shared her name, would have been delighted by the inclusion of sumptuous books of hours that once belonged to Isabella, queen of Naples (1424–65), and Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539).

A comprehensive website, beyondwords2016.org, offers detailed information about visiting each venue, a calendar of public programming, a link to the smartphone-accessible audio guide, and a searchable database of objects in the show. With guaranteed funding to maintain the website for five years, the curators promise regular infusions of new material. Updates are also posted on Twitter @BeyondWords2016. If these media prove anything like as durable as the parchment, ink, and paint that came before them, the great scholarly effort behind Beyond Words may have a long afterlife.

Jane Whitehead is a writer in the Boston area.


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