"No one who has ever seen it could forget its extraordinary mise en page: the vibrant colours, the writhing dragons, the lurching prophets . . . all on a monumental scale and set against jagged grounds of blue or rose," wrote Dorothy Miner, late librarian of Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery, of the Conradin Bible. Today, when the gallery opens its doors, an even more dazzling sight will greet curious visitors . . .

Although the 13th-century southern Italian manuscript has been at the Walters since 1902, certain ornamental illustrations and illuminated letters were missing from its pages -- cut out by collectors and vandals two centuries earlier. In a serendipitous turn of events, philanthropist J. Paul Getty II last month donated to the gallery 18 of the missing pieces. The Walters now possesses a third of the original manuscript, which goes on display today.

It has been a rough passage for this medieval gem. Named for its second owner, King Conradin of Sicily and Jerusalem, the work passed through numerous hands after the young Hohenstaufen emperor was decapitated by French captors in 1268. It did not surface again until the 19th century, passing among various French collectors between 1830 and 1900. In 1902 Henry Walters purchased the by then incomplete manuscript in Florence, Italy.

New York City art dealer Michael Ward bought six of the missing pieces in 1981, then obtained 12 more from another dealer. He offered the entire lot for $68,000 but no one appeared ready to snap them up and donate them to the Walters. Ward considered selling off the pages piecemeal.

Then, in November 1984, an article by Jeffrey Schaire appeared in Arts and Antiques, detailing the Walters' situation. "The Bible and illuminations are unique," Schaire wrote, "which makes it even sadder to think that if they are dispersed, it is almost certain to be forever."

Sometime last month, Maggs Brothers Ltd. -- "preeminent booksellers in London," says a Walters spokeswoman -- informed the gallery that it would be receiving a gift from Getty. The items arrived the first week in February. The gallery has received no further communications or acknowledgment from Getty.

The Conradin Bible is on exhibit through April 3. Call 301-547-9000 for more information.