An Illustrated History 

Frist exhibits of medieval artifacts are stunningly beautiful and full of genuine insights

Frist exhibits of medieval artifacts are stunningly beautiful and full of genuine insights

Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illumination From Philadelphia Collections

Through Jan. 6

Realms of Faith: Medieval & Byzantine Art From the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Through Jan. 13

Both on view at Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway. 244-3340

Historian Norman Cantor contends that early 20th century medieval scholars invented our current notion of the Middle Ages. The social, economic and political landscape in the centuries following the Roman Empire through the flowering of the Renaissance was largely a blank canvas, he argues, and historians with vivid imaginations such as Louis Halpben, Marc Bloch, C.S. Lewis, Charles Hoskins and Charles Etienne Gibson sifted through volumes of documents to construct a narrative for what had been thought of as a dark and violent, culturally empty epoch.

Since modern historians began exploring the Middle Ages, popular curiosity has expanded exponentially. Thanks to movies, novels and the History Channel, most people have at least a passing familiarity with the pageantry of fabled kingdoms and the mysterious rituals of the Catholic Church. This fall, through mid-January, the “Realms of Faith” and “Leaves of Gold” exhibits at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts seize on this popular curiosity with an almost encyclopedic overview of the art produced in medieval Europe and the eastern Byzantine Empire. Together, these two shows provide a window into a world that virtually glowed with creativity, extraordinary skill and often explosive imaginative leaps.

“Leaves of Gold” is a collection of exquisite illuminated manuscripts from 11 libraries and museums in Greater Philadelphia, the home of a concentration of important medieval collections. Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with the city's Special Collection libraries and the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, the collection features more than 80 works selected from some 2,000 pages of manuscripts.

To wander into the dimly lit exhibit is like entering a sanctuary; a monastic atmosphere of contemplation infuses the rooms. Glass-enclosed display cases contain book after book, each tantalizingly opened to a specific vellum page, exposing the glittering treasures within. Several “cuttings” from enormous choir books line the walls. On each of these, an enlarged and embellished initial announces the beginning of a passage with a miniature painting, often an allegorical illustration, glowing with gold leaf and sumptuous colors.

Representing works from the 12th through the 14th centuries, the collection includes Bibles, liturgical texts, Psalters (books of Psalms), choir books, Books of Hours, and secular and literary works from Spain, France, Italy and Germany. Superb craftsmanship is displayed in these works, all of which held special significance in medieval and early Renaissance culture. The large 13th century Bibles were made especially for communal readings during formal worship, while smaller versions were used for home study, as the lay population of Europe became increasingly more literate. Psalters, some of the most beautiful pieces on display, were read to children because of the ease with which they could understand the Latin.

With their delicate illustrations, the several examples of the Book of Hours in the Frist show rival the most famous of such works, the Book of Hours of Jean, the Duke of Berry. This primary prayer book in medieval Europe contained eight sections of liturgy to be recited at specific times of day. Often the first and only book owned by an individual, it also served as a monthly calendar and almanac, and was often handed down as a treasured gift. Miniature illustrations often depicted scenes from the cycles of the seasons: sowing and plowing, reaping and harvesting, winemaking, even keeping warm in the cold months. Some cautioned the reader to live a pious life with the “memento mori” theme.

Perhaps the most arresting item in this exhibit is a 15th century secular “roll.” The 18-foot genealogical chart of England's King Edward IV spreads across almost the entire length of one room. This extraordinary panel weaves together the artist's (and the nobility's) vision of the history of the world, from creation to the enthronement of the supreme god of war, Woden (from whom the Anglo-Saxon kings derived their ancestry). Ornate and intricate, the panel traces complex royal family trees, with diagrammatic maps of kingdoms and resplendent coats of arms dating back to the legendary King Arthur. Essentially a political document, the roll is a powerful statement of the king's authority.

A short wander from the “Leaves of Gold” leads the visitor into “Realms of Faith,” the parallel exhibition from the Walters Art Museum's permanent collection in Baltimore, one of the most celebrated in the nation. The first loan made by the Walters Museum to another institution, this selection of approximately 100 religious and secular objects was selected specifically for the Frist Museum.

Beginning with small items such as ornately decorated fibulae, bracelets and buckles from the Visigoth and Anglo-Saxon periods, and extending to early Byzantine liturgical objects from Ethiopia and Egypt, the collection traces the history of Christian influence across the entire European, North African and East Asian continents, from the sack of the Roman Empire in the fifth century through the rich flowering of the Gothic style in 14th century France.

Fragments of small bronze and bone sculptures, segments of textiles with hunting scenes and delicate designs, household items such as lamps, and pieces of delicate jewelry illuminate not only the consummate technical virtuosity of fourth and fifth century artisans, they also describe the curious fusion of pagan and new Christian imagery in Byzantine culture. Bacchus and Cupid grace some inlays, while fifth and sixth century amulets feature the crucifixion. Later works honor saints and the Virgin Mary, cycles of feast days and the Annunciation. Dovetailing with this collection is a selection of Russian icons chronicling that country's immersion into the Eastern Orthodox faith.

Romanesque works in enamel and bronze from the 11th and 12th centuries offer examples of the elaborate arrangement of liturgical objects used in worship. Candlesticks, pyxes (containers for the Eucharist wafers), enameled altar crosses and carved capitals mark the march from early Christianity to the sudden eruption of religiously inspired creativity in 13th and 14th century France, as the Catholic Church took solid hold of the region's wealth and social power.

With their delicate cloisonné and champlevé enamel inlay techniques, reliquaries and plaques from Limoges represent the culmination of the Walters collection. Also on display are luxuriously illuminated Books of Hours with inlaid covers, as well as statuettes and diptychs in ivory and painted wood, often commissioned by wealthy classes for private devotionals.

Both exhibits provide an utterly beautiful journey back into time, and the Frist has taken great pains to provide detailed contextual expositions on the objects on display. The overall effect is one of great coherence. Particularly useful is the Education Gallery on the main level, which gives explanations of the painstaking techniques used to create painted icons, illuminated manuscripts and works in ivory, enamel and metal. My favorite educational device is the interactive CD-ROM provided by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the “Leaves of Gold” exhibit. Touch the mouse, and immediate access is provided to seven entire manuscripts from the collection, complete with pages of historical detail.

The Frist is introducing important works of art to an apparently hungry public, and it's using all the tools at its disposal to make the art accessible, understandable and entertaining, with open lectures, family art workshops and musical programming. But such offerings would be meaningless if the exhibits themselves weren't so incredibly stunning. After witnessing “Leaves of Gold” and “Realms of Faith,” it is difficult to reenter the 21st century without a deepened sense of the innate creativity of the human spirit. These two shows provide a desperately needed respite from this chaotic, confusing moment in current history.

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