Monday, July 03, 2006

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

I must have been living under a rock to have missed word about this, but the Holy Spirit had other plans, and blew where it willed, so that I came across it anyway; in the Tyler Museuem of Art, of all places.

(Full disclosure: I worked in the museum as a "greeter" and "gift shop clerk" [the two jobs were one] almost 35 years ago. There were times I was the only person in the building. That's one more reason this astonishes me so.)

But I got to see, this weekend, the St. John's Bible. Pictures at the website don't do the illuminations justice. Here, for example, is as good a picture of the frontispiece to the Gospel of Matthew was I've found on-line. All of that gold is gold leaf. All the colors are vivid beyond description. The power of the image, the sense of movement, vibrancy, life, simply cannot be reproduced or mediated. You have to see it.

The frontispiece for Luke is my favorite. The picture, again, doesn't do it justice. Imagine, again, gold leaf wherever you see gold. Mary's face is also visible (one of two faces that were distinct in the pages available at the exhibit). And the wondrous thing is: she looks Asian. Chinese, perhaps Korean. But not like a young white Hollywood starlet. Another illumination, of the story of Luke 7:36-50, shows the kneeling woman quite clearly (many of the illustrations of people are simply figures, usually masses of people, as in the frontispiece for Acts, the story of Pentecost), and she looks distinctly African.

There are theological statements here, as in the illumination for the call from Deuteronomy to "choose life." Look carefully at the picture, you'll see the words "choose life" repeated three times, finally in large red print ("red letters." Get it?) And the power of the image that fronts the Gospel of John just barely comes through in this picture. As you can see on that page, the entire "Hymn to the Logos" that opens John's Gospel is set apart from the calligraphic style of the rest of the chapter.

This is the work of medieval scribes in the 21st century, and it is all done by hand. One page showed an emendation, where one of the calligraphers had left out a line of the text. A bird, beautifully illustrated and looking quite like a Celtic artist's rendering, with its beak placed between the lines, pointed out the lacunae. A string from the beak ran to the bottom of the page where a banner floated with the missing words.

The translation, by the way, is the NRSV. But the text is set out like the scribes would have done in the middle ages; with wider margins, to be sure, but without line breaks for "poetry" or even strict breaks between verses. The verses are indicated by colorful geometrics (usually diamond shapes), and the calligraphy of each book varies slightly with the calligrapher, which only adds to the beauty and wonder of the text.

These books will be bound, eventually, in 7 volumes, between oak covers; but you can read about that at their website. If you can see the exhibit, you owe it to yourself to go. Even an old hide-bound Protestant like myself, raised to eschew all imagery as idolatry (except, oddly, enough, the Aryan Jesus pictures of Sunday School of my youth) was moved by these illuminations. I expected to be impressed with their artistry, but I was actually more moved by their spirituality. Luke's is my favorite of the Gospels, so I was of course taken with the illuminations for that text. Each of the hymns of Luke: the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Gloria, and the Nunc Dimmitus, are set off in the text (not the margins) by beautiful calligraphic and artistic work (much like this). But the geneaology of Jesus from Matthew was a marvel, and the frontispiece of the Gospel of John captured the Creation for me even better than the frontispiece for Genesis. Of course, this is a Christian work, so the illuminations of the Gospels would be the most important to the committee guiding the artwork and to the artists producing it. The works for the Pentateuch are equally wonderful. We had to rush through the Psalms, unfortunately, but each of the 7 volumes will be wondrous if these three were any indication. These are absolutely beautiful works of art and spirit; I cannot recommend them enough. See them in person, if at all possible. I'm saving my pennies now for the volume of the Gospels and Acts. They aren't as beautiful as the full-size originals, but they make me realize how much an act of devotion the first illuminated texts were, and how much it would mean to be able to read, even silently, even privately, from them.

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