Because of how we read now -- silently and swiftly -- your eye no doubt sped right on by the B with which this sentence started.

Another B begins "Masterpieces in Miniature: Italian Manuscript Illumination From the J. Paul Getty Museum" at the National Gallery of Art, and this one makes you stop. First it stuns you with its opulence, then it snares you in its tendrils. Its shape is all a-shimmer. It makes you look again.

The B is from a prayer book, a manual for monks. It was painted on a parchment page in 1153, when people marveled still at written words in lines. This letter is a promise. It prepares you for the wondrous. It's a lot more than a B.

It is also, simultaneously, a pack of dogs caught within a thicket. These otherworldly animals are jubilantly snapping at interlacing vines with leaves of deep blue and stems of burnished gold.

The initial they inhabit also stands for riches. Think how long it took to pound its gold to leaf, to calculate its spirals, to grind its precious pigments. Its blues are lapis lazuli, which cost as much as gold.

That letter is a portal, too. It's like a great cathedral doorway constructed to take you out of this world and admit you to another full of mystery and power. Not everyone can enter. First you have to read.

There are 45 manuscripts -- entire books and bits of books -- in the Getty's exhibition. Most were painted between the birth of Dante in 1265 and the death of Michelangelo in 1564, and most were read aloud.

The B -- for Beatus vir . . . ("Blessed is the man . . .) -- initiates, in the Latin Bible, the first line of the First Psalm. Devised at Montecassino, the vastly wealthy mother house of the Benedictine order, it was painted at a time when most reading was a sacred act, neither swift nor silent. Every day, in unison, the monks there read the psalms. And every week those learned men intoned all 150. The B restarts the cycle. Prepare to hear the Word of God is the message it delivers. Try to hear, in memory, the chanting of the monks as you wander through this show. Also hold in mind what an awesome thing a book was in Roman Catholic Italy -- when books cost more than houses, and herds of goats were slain to provide their parchment pages, and, except for clergy, few people could read.

Books were very rare: In 1424, the rich and renowned library at Cambridge University, which now possesses more than 7 million volumes, owned 122.

Books for Christian worship -- like most of those on view -- were more than texts; they were reliquaries. Like little jeweled chests for the finger-bones of saints, or for splinters of the Cross, these volumes held the holy. They contained the Word of God.

To preserve His message in a string of small black marks, and to put these in a book, must have been regarded as a fabulous technology. Pages such as these held the key to one's salvation. The church itself relied on them. No wonder books intimidated, but pictures were accessible. Everyone reads pictures.

Those in the exhibit are neither fully word nor fully picture -- they partake of both.

Worlds were revealed in these illuminations. Here's what Heaven looks like. There's a glimpse of Hell. Here are griffins, gardens and the people in the Bible. Embraced within these letters, and obedient to their shapes, are Job in his afflictions, the manger in the Holy Land, and Noah and his ark.

One of these initials (on a parchment from the Veneto, circa 1420) begins Psalm 69: "Save me, O God: for the waters have risen up to my neck . . ." To make that message visible, a little shipwrecked monk, already under water, is clinging to the S so that he is not swept away.

An S allows the artists to paint within one image two related pictures, one within the bottom curve, one within the top. "Initial S: The Conversion of Saint Paul," a cutting from a choir book from the 1440s, is one such two-part picture. Paul, who has just been miraculously converted, is tumbling from his horse in the initial's lower half. Above him, grandly clad in a gigantic crimson hat, is the wealthy Italian patron who paid to have the book made. By entering the letter, he has made himself a witness to the miracle. He probably was portrayed by the artist Pisanello, a painter widely known for his creative hats.

The J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles is enviably rich. Even after buying 110 acres, building a campus and acquiring lots of art, the Getty has behind it an endowment worth about $5 billion.

Still, money can't buy everything -- including enough good panel pictures to survey thoughtfully what happened to Italian art between the Middle Ages and the High Renaissance. There aren't enough around.

Old books, and pictures cut from them, aremore available. And those that reach the market tend to be in good condition. Light hasn't bleached their colors. Restorers haven't ruined them. These pictures from the Getty sketch a useful outline of the painting of the period, tiny though they are.

The Montecassino B is clearly Celtic in its precedents. The D depicting Noah and his tall, top-heavy ark shows the influence of Leonardo. Girolamo da Cremona's little image of the Pentecost, circa 1460, has something of the calm of a miniature Mantegna. But "Masterpieces in Miniature" isn't really about masterpieces, it's about reading.

Strings of words on paper -- nowadays we drown in them. Catalogues clog the mailbox; last week's unread papers stack up in the hall; shelves sag beneath the weight of formulaic thrillers. You see this show and know that books were glorious once. They're a lot less glorious now.

"Masterpieces in Miniature: Italian Manuscript Illumination From the J. Paul Getty Museum" will remain on view in the National Gallery's East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, through Jan. 2. Thomas Kren, the Getty's curator of manuscripts, and associate curator Kurt Barstow chose the exhibition. The gallery is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215 or visit

Above, a detail of the letter B, shown at right, from a 12th-century prayer book included in "Masterpieces in Miniature: Italian Manuscript Illumination." In an S attributed to Pisanello, above, the artist shows Saint Paul tumbling from his horse in the lower half and the book's wealthy patron in the upper. Below, an S by Francesco d'Antonio del Chierico holds the tribulations of Job. At top left, Girolamo da Cremona's miniature image of the Pentecost, circa 1460.