Craftsmanship and Faith Combine in Polk Museum Exhibition

Alex RichThe tragic fire last week at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris drew attention to its Gothic structure, the architectural art of the Middle Ages. But another artistic achievement of that same period sits in a current exhibition at the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College.

The exhibition, “Painted Pages: Illuminated Manuscripts,” consists of more than a dozen examples of the art of “illumination,” or decorating handwritten books with sometimes elaborate calligraphy or drawings in gold, silver or colored ink. The earliest pages in the collection date from the mid-1200s, created at the very time Notre Dame was under construction, and other examples range from the 14th to 18th centuries.

The exhibition, which runs through May 26, contains a few secular and Middle Eastern texts, but the majority are pages from European Christian manuscripts – Bibles, prayer books, missals, choir books and lectionaries, as well as examples from Jewish scriptures and mystical texts.

Alex Rich and the Painted Pages exhibition
Alex Rich and the Painted Pages exhibition at Polk Museum of Art Cary McMullen

Alex Rich, curator and director of galleries and exhibitions, said the near-destruction of the works of art inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, as well as the building itself, is a sobering reminder of how easily treasures from antiquity, including illuminated manuscripts, can be lost.

“It makes us realize the fragility of art,” he said.

Rich noted that the books from which the illuminated pages were taken were rare even in the Middle Ages because only a handful of people could read and write, and it took enormous effort to produce a single book in the days before the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s. Even the precise lettering of the text itself and the styles, which we know as fonts, are themselves a form of art.

“If you were a scribe, you were a very particular person in society,” he said.

The illuminations in “Painted Pages” include a German and Italian Book of Hours, or book of devotional readings for appointed times of day, from the mid-1400s that features tiny but elaborate figures of vines, heralds and birds, as well as an image of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. Other pages include a breviary, or prayer book, from about 1300 that has whimsical “doodles” in the form of faces or animals in the midst of the drawing that Rich compares to the “marginalia” found in today’s Mad or New Yorker magazines. Some texts run from the 2-foot-tall choir books from the 1400s to the incredibly small, 3/16-inch-high letters of the earliest example, a Vulgate Bible from 1240.

The exhibition is on loan from the Reading (Pa.) Public Museum and was donated from the personal collection of Otto Frederick Ege, former dean of the Cleveland Institute of Art, who was a manuscript specialist and a native of Reading. Ege engaged in the controversial practice of breaking apart the ancient books he acquired and packaging the pages into collections that he then sold to museums around the world. Rich said there are two sides to the story.

“It’s sad to think they’ve been separated from the original manuscript. But the positive side is, this way we get to see them,” he said.

The exhibition also includes a 20th-century example, a handwritten Torah scroll loaned to the museum by Rabbi David Goldstein of Temple Emanuel in Lakeland. The origin of the scroll is unknown but is believed to have been created in Europe about 120 years ago, Goldstein said. He purchased it from a congregation he served in Portsmouth, Va., that was disbanding and selling off its possessions.

The scroll, about two feet tall, contains the first five books of the Bible on a continuous roll of vellum, or dried goatskin. Goldstein said the traditional process of copying the text – nothing is written from memory – follows a strict ritual employed by trained scribes.

“It takes about a year to write. Only quill pens from a kosher bird, usually a turkey, are used. The ink can have no metallic ingredients, and no metal instruments can be used, because metal is seen as an instrument of war,” he said. “The scribe goes through an apprenticeship, and when he can pass the test to show his mastery, he is qualified to write the Torah.”

Since Jews, like Christians, regard the Bible as the word of God, Goldstein said Jewish scribes must recite certain prayers every time they sit down to write.

“It is considered a holy task,” he said.

Rich noted that the faith that drove people to devote centuries to building Notre Dame also produced the painstaking effort to create these manuscripts.

“It’s a different means of creation, but there is a parallel with the amount of time needed. The craftsmanship required years of training and devotion,” he said.