Editors' pick

Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations

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Editorial Review

Page of Enlightenment
'Heaven' Manuscripts Shine at National Gallery, Where Everything Is Illuminated

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tear a page out of a book and what do you get? Perhaps a pang of guilt. Otherwise not much. Just a piece of trash.

But the 52 pages from old vandalized books in "Heaven on Earth: Manuscript Illuminations From the National Gallery of Art" are the opposite of trash. They declare their preciousness as soon as one lays eyes on them. They gleam of polished gold. Their layout and their letters and their focused little pictures show excellent control of the shiny and the tiny. Their calculated parts have been fit together finely by specialists in many skills. It's like looking at the innards of a bejeweled watch.

We drown in paper, but these pages are vellum -- lambskin, kidskin or calfskin -- and vellum was never cheap. There was the training of the dog and the tending of the flock and the tanning and the flattening, the scraping and the bleaching, and you'd only gotten started. Painters, gilders, binders, scribes, all of these came later. The psalters, missals, Bibles, chronicles and choir books of the 12th to 16th centuries from which these leaves were cut cost, and just for starters, one animal per page.

Behind all these initials and multicolored Bible scenes and fanciful embellishments, one can sense the oiled hum of efficient institutions (the monastery, the cathedral, the royal house, the guild) showing off their glory, importance and prestige.

These pages are like reliquaries, those golden jeweled boxes with small rock-crystal windows in which the Church preserved the fingernails of saints. The flawless hides, the thin sheets of gold glued to them, the pure blue of the Virgin's robe (from powdered lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan) and the sheer quality of the painting weren't just signs of wealth, they were signs of veneration. What was written on the vellum -- the law, the founding documents, the revealed word of God -- was more valuable by far.

The East Building show, curated by Virginia Tuttle, largely reexhibits leaves mostly kept in storage that were last displayed together in 1975. Most were gifts to the museum from a great collector, Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), one of its founding donors. In the days of his collecting, pages such as these had assumed another kind of worth. They'd become Works of Art.

That they looked not at all modern was one of their chief virtues. Instead, they seemed to carry the purity of olden days. When English country houses held pre-Raphaelite imaginings of princesses and knights, when Henry Adams was hymning Chartres, and the architecture of Ivy League colleges was going Gothic, medieval pages were thought appropriate possessions for rich and learned gentlemen who had risen above trade.

A market grew to serve them. The Protestant Reformation had busted many monasteries. Napoleon had done the same, and entering a library or a sacristy and removing an old book, or just slicing out a page, had never been that risky, and the dealers always seemed to have an adequate supply. Rosenwald bought exquisitely. His money came from Sears.

One of his oldest illuminations was cut out of the Arenberg Psalter, a book produced in Braunschweig, Germany, in 1239. It shows Christ seated in Heaven. Although the medieval Germans might have despised Jews, you wouldn't know it from this image. Jesus isn't on a throne. He's sitting in the lap of Abraham. Cavorting in the corners are four little dancing men, all classical, all nude, who are pouring out of vessels the four rivers of Paradise: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon.

Another bearded man is seated behind Christ in "Initial V: The Trinity" (1414) from a choir book from Prague. This time it's God. In most visions of the Trinity, Jesus has already been nailed to the cross. Here, instead, he's stroking it. The dove perched on its crossbar represents the Holy Spirit.

Also very well invented is "Initial S: King David as Scribe," which was painted in 1434 by an artist called the Master of the Cypresses, most likely in Seville, Spain. The big S, at each end, turns into a roaring green-skinned red-tongued dragon. At its mundane middle, that letter turns, instead, into a flat blue desk. David's knees are tucked under it. He is pausing, quill in hand, deciding what to write down next. He's been equipped with the key tools that a scribe requires (an inkwell and a knife for scraping off mistakes). David's composing the Psalms.

Pictures of this sort tend to stand apart from the paintings of their day, and not just because they're smaller. They're frequently more playful. In "Initial G: Coronation of the Virgin with Attendant Saints" (1325-1350), the holy image is accompanied by others that aren't holy at all. In one of these an unreliable entertainer (he seems half monk, half devil) spins a saucer on a stick. In another, monkeys practice archery. Another difference, too, separates such objects from big pictures. They are much better preserved.

Frescoes and paintings from the Renaissance have been suffering, for centuries, the combined effects of flakings, candle soot and mold. Time and sun have faded their colors. And very often, too, their surfaces have been clumsily repaired.

These illuminations were more fortunate. Most of them, for centuries, were kept out of the light, and squeezed in heavy volumes, so that their vivid colors are as startling and bright as they were when they were new.

When seen, these pictures moved. They moved and were replaced in storytelling sequence each time the page was turned, and every time the vellum caught the light, its passages of polished gold sent gleams into the room.