03.09.18, Tanis, ed., Leaves of Gold

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Anne-Marie Bouche

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.018


Tanis, James, ed.. Leaves of Gold: Manuscript Illuminations from Philadelphia Collections. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001. Pp. v, 238. ISBN: 0-876-33144-4.

Reviewed by:
Anne-Marie Bouche
Princeton University

The exhibition documented in this handsome volume brings together rarely-exhibited treasures from eleven Philadelphia-area museums and libraries, some eighty items, mostly codices, rolls, detached leaves and individual illuminations cut from manuscripts. The majority represent the collecting activities of art-lovers and bibliophiles active in and around Philadelphia over the course of almost two centuries, from the late 1700s to the 1940s.

The catalog combines beautifully-reproduced images, general essays and original scholarship. It thus envisions two audiences: the non-specialist will find here an attractive accessus to the subject of medieval illumination, while specialists will profit from the new research available in these catalog entries.

The "Introduction," by James Marrow, is a rewarding meditation on the meaning and functions of books in medieval culture, and on what we can learn by studying them. In the first of two general essays, "Collecting Illuminated Manuscripts in Philadelphia," James R. Tanis offers an intriguing perspective on an important phenomenon, the role played by the collection of Old World art in the creation of a cultural identity by (newly) wealthy classes in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-entury America. The second essay, "From Calf to Codex," by Abigail B. Quandt and William G. Noel, is a rapid yet reasonably detailed account of the various processes that go into the making of manuscript books, written in a breezy, entertaining style as a series of recipes.

The entries that follow are grouped according to the nature of the texts illuminated. The exhibition planners, I think wisely, limited themselves to only five categories: Bibles and parts of Bibles, Psalters (here considered separately from Bibles), Books of Hours and other private devotional works, liturgical books, and "literary and secular manuscripts," a miscellaneous category of works that are either secular in content or were owned by secular patrons and treated for illustration purposes as though they were secular texts, eg. Augustine's City of God. This organization made it possible to introduce each group of entries with an essay explaining the history of the particular text and the tradition of its illustration. While not comprehensive -- they tend, naturally enough, to focus on those parts of the story relevant to the exhibited works -- these essays are nonetheless surprisingly detailed overviews of their subjects, engagingly written by specialists who are obviously experienced at communicating scholarly material to a general public.

By far the most important theme treated in the entries was the highly technical one of attribution -- dating, localizing and naming the artists who painted each miniature. Here one felt the influence of an over-all project or plan, not necessarily required by the exigencies of the exhibition, but arising either from an editorial decision or from the common interests and approaches of the contributing authors. Such an occasion does of course represent a remarkable opportunity for manuscript specialists to study a whole, under-published body of material, and there will surely be many who will be grateful for the level of detail about attribution contained in these entries. A non-specialist, however, slogging away through the minutiae of hands and workshops, might be forgiven for concluding that modern manuscript scholarship is overwhelmingly about attribution. This would be unfortunate, for there are many other fascinating problems raised by some of these objects that could have been explored in greater depth.

By way of example, we might take the second catalog entry, which describes an elegant little thirteenth-century Parisian Bible and Missal (University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg Library MS codex 236). The apparent simplicity of this book belies its considerable interest. In most Bibles of this type and date, the initial I of Genesis (In principio) is filled with roundels depicting the Days of Creation. These are replaced in this example by three small medallions -- Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark and the Sacrifice of Isaac. As the entry notes, these are Genesis scenes, but they are surely intended as more than narrative episodes from that Biblical book. Both Noah's Ark and the Sacrifice of Isaac are classic examples of Old Testament types; together with the Fall of Man they constitute a diagrammatic summary of Salvation history. Between humanity's Fall (Adam and Eve) and its ultimate redemption at the end of time through Christ's blood (the sacrifice of Isaac) the chosen people journey through the vicissitudes of history in the Ark, symbolic of the Church. This not only frames and interprets the text of the Bible volume it prefaces but also, I would surmise, relates to the presence of the second text comprising this composite volume, the Missal.

In a way that the Creation scenes would not, typological imagery makes it possible to see the Bible and Missal texts as thematically linked: the Genesis episodes anticipate the Church's role in history, especially as mediator of the Eucharist, the liturgy of which is contained in the Missal. The Genesis roundels can be read, therefore, as leading up to the Te Igitur Crucifixion miniature that opens the Canon of the Mass in the Missal.

I would have liked to know just how common such Missal-Bibles are in the thirteenth century. My suspicion is that they aren't that common, and moreover that the unusual textual features noted in the catalog entry, as well as the sober, but remarkably high-quality execution of both writing and illumination, betray the taste of a fastidious and knowledgeable patron. Is it going too far to suggest that the typological emphasis on the Church and the Eucharist in the Genesis initial may not only have been meant to create a logical connection between two otherwise disparate texts, but might also have been a way for the patron to situate himself, as an ordained priest, in the broader context of salvation history? This is a case, and there are a number of others in this catalog, where a consideration of the whole package, text and imagery together, might have been more revealing than a discussion of one or two images in isolation.

One of the slightly frustrating features of this catalog is the often cursory nature of the descriptions of the codices included in the exhibition. While it is understandable that entries tend to emphasize what visitors to the exhibition were actually able to see -- usually two facing pages -- the result is that fragments, such as detached leaves or cuttings, receive much more comprehensive coverage, relatively speaking, than intact books. The descriptive information included varies from entry to entry, and while some of the contributors do satisfy our curiosity with additional information -- a listing of the subjects of all the miniatures in a book, for example -- one is often left with almost nothing in the way of a physical description except for the number of folios, the measurements of the leaves and text-blocks, and raw numbers giving some idea of the richness of the decoration -- so many full-page miniatures, so many half-page miniatures, etc. This sometimes makes it hard to situate a given miniature within the larger context of the whole book.

Although one can always long for more and different information, these few comments cannot detract from the many merits of this catalog. Beyond its role in the context of a particular exhibition, it fills a real lacuna, in that with some honorable exceptions there are few places where so much good, general information on illuminated manuscripts can be found, written for a general audience and presented in such an appealing format. They manage to be general in scope, and yet include many original insights and views that everyone working in the field will appreciate.

Finally, while one always wishes for more images and more illustrations of comparative material, we can only be grateful for the number and magnificant quality of the illustrations that are here reproduced, many doubtless for the first time. They perpetuate and make accessible to a much wider audience the exhibition itself, and add substantially to the available corpus of medieval manuscript illuminations published to the highest standard of quality.

Far too many general books on illuminated manuscripts have appeared in recent years that simply reproduce the same old illustrations, often from the same, poor-quality transparencies, pink from age and blurry in reproduction, that have been the staple of survey books for years. Almost all scholarly books on illumination are still largely illustrated with black-and-white reproductions. The economic reasons for this sad state of affairs are well known, and in many cases insurmountable, but I have no doubt that the general perception of manuscript illumination as "boring" or "too specialized" is partly due to a lack of good visual material. No such complaint can be made, however, in the case of this catalog. These illustrations are mostly unfamiliar, and rendered as they are here, fairly leap from the page with all the detail and freshness of the originals, a feast both for the eye and for the curious mind. The editors, and all who participated in the production of the volume, are to be commended for insisting on such quality and delivering it to the public at a reasonable price.

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Anne-Marie Bouche

Princeton University