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by N.F. Karlins
"The Splendor of the Word: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts," Oct. 21, 2005-Feb. 12, 2006, at the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10018.

I wanted to run my fingertips over the cool, shimmering expanses of gold in illustrations of New Testament scenes in a two-volume Book of the Hours (Avignon, France, ca. 1390-1400).

Seeing the prophet Zachariah, looming with suppressed power over casually crossed legs as the letter "I" in an Office Lectionary from Germany, ca. 1220, I craved turning the pages to discover what other images awaited.

And if you see the treasures assembled for "The Splendor of the Word: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts" at the New York Public Library, in which these and about 98 more manuscript illuminations are under glass, you may be wishing the same things. But the glass -- not to mention the guards -- will soon force the dismissal of those ideas and allow you to concentrate on the illuminations that are visible in this exquisite array of rarely seen works from the 900s to the late 1500s.

Between preparing the animal hides, ruling them, copying the texts, adding the illustrations and creating the binding, these manuscripts were available only to the wealthiest and most learned. Most required several artists and craftsmen to complete.

One notable exception on display is a "girdle book," one of only two dozen known to exist. This chunky breviary, or book of daily prayers and readings, is covered in leather that forms a pouch for the book and extends over the ends in flaps that are tied into a knot. Originally, the small book hung with text upside down from the belt of its maker, Brother Sebaldus Sachs, prior of a Benedictine monastery in southern Germany. He needed only to reach down, lift up and right the text in order to read his prayers.

Bibles and parts of Bibles, however, were the most important volumes during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In one case, three different versions of the Apocalypse, based on the Revelations of St. John the Divine, can be compared. An Anglo-Norman manuscript from England, ca. 1325-30, contains an angel who has one realistic foot on a cloud and the other on the sea, but whose body is a series of jittery "S" curves with wings attached. Two later and much more sophisticated German "Apocalypse" examples, both from the 1400s, are brilliantly colored but lack the simplicity and charm of this one. 

Dating even earlier, in fact the earliest pieces in the show, are four pages from The Harkness Gospels, in Latin, from Brittany (a part of western France), the Celtic origins of which can be clearly seen in the strapwork decoration with intertwined knots. They date from the late 9th to the early 10th century. They had to have been done before 919 AD, when Viking raids forced the abandonment of the abbey where they were made.

The frontispiece miniature shows Christ in his Majesty, Surrounded by the Four Evangelists. This and the other sheets are part of a tradition of "beast-headed" Evangelists. An attribute associated with each of the four Gospel-writers -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- is transformed into the head of the man.

A gradual, which contains the words and music sung during the liturgy, from Haarlem in the Northern Netherlands from ca. 1493-4, is light-years away in complexity. Here the music is surrounded with the adoration of the Magi, the voyage of the Magi, and at the bottom, an "Ecce Homo," or a "behold the man" vignette of Christ stripped naked before his Crucifixion.

To this last Biblical scene is added the coats of arms of several donors, who kneel on either side of the tableau. The sumptuous clothes and adornments of the upper class Renaissance donors form quite a contrast with Christ.

Another Renaissance gem, The Townley Lectionary from Rome, ca. 1550-60, is represented by half a dozen high Renaissance full sheet paintings. Especially notable are the two Michelangelesque illuminations by Giulio Clovio. His Resurrection of Christ pictures a hefty, muscular Christ-figure rather than an emaciated one, and he manages to sneak a classical male nude into the bottom of his Nativity.

The market for books for individuals increased during the Middle Ages as literacy increased and wealth expanded. The clergy stressed private devotions in which they and lay persons alike empathized with Christ’s passion and Mary’s suffering. This created a market for psalters and books of hours to assist these personal meditations.

The Tree of Jesse from The Tickhill Psalter, a wildly decorative English work from around 1304-04, is filled with profuse floral and flat, patterned designs in still-vivid cerulean blue, red, green and gold. It traces the generations that lead up to Christ, while prophets stand with their scrolls in niches on either side of the family tree.

The Tickhill Psalter was named for the Prior who ordered it. It was left unfinished as he was banished for malfeasance, possibly for using the priory’s funds to underwrite this manuscript. It is one work that you may turn the pages of -- sort of. An electronic touch-screen permits views of 17 folios.

The final section of the exhibition is devoted to secular manuscripts -- books on astrology, atlases, ancient histories, chronicles, literature and even advice books -- that combine entertainment with learning.

A fish market scene spread across two pages gives an excellent idea of what life was like in the 1400s, for example. It comes from A Chronicle of the Council of Constance by Ulrich von Richental. The Council of Constance, held over several years in southern Germany near Switzerland, was convened to mediate a schism in the Catholic Church, which had two popes at the time.

While the Council was in session, von Richental wrote a diary of what he saw, later fashioning an illustrated chronicle. His market scene has a huge cast of characters, including clergy and laymen, young and old, who haggle, chat, wait in line, and inspect what’s for sale, while fishmongers take orders, hack up and weigh their fish.

Giovanni Boccacio, better know for his prose tales in the Decameron, also wrote Of Famous Women, which strove to discuss every famous -- or infamous -- lady from Eve to around 1360. An illuminated manuscript of this work from Paris or Ile-de-France from ca. 1460-70 shows some bloody Scenes from the Life of Medea. A nearby touch-screen allows for more sampling of this complex series of miniatures.

Even if you can’t scroll through them, you won’t want to miss the maps, a lively tale from Aesop, and an Italian Health Handbook opened to a page illustrating the healing properties of spring water dating from the late 1400s.

The show represents the fruits of the first thorough cataloguing of the NYPL’s manuscript holdings. The three guest curators of "The Splendor of the Word" are professor Jonathan J. G. Alexander of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, professor emeritus James H. Marrow of Princeton, and professor emerita Lucy Freeman Sandler of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.

A catalogue for the exhibition is $55 in paperback, and rises in price to $75 after the show closes on Feb. 12, 2006.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.