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'Mind's Eye' Illuminates Illuminated Manuscripts


The Middle Ages, with their religious faith and rigid social structure, seem a time so unlike our own as to be unfathomable. The J. Paul Getty Museum's department of manuscripts regularly casts various beams of understanding on the period with its unfailingly absorbing small exhibitions. The latest is called "Illuminating the Mind's Eye: Memory and Medieval Book Arts." It's startlingly different.

At a glance, however, it looks pretty much like other displays in this gallery. Rare volumes rest, open, in cases. Lighting is dim so as not to damage them. A modest brochure and wall text explain the general theme, while labels on individual books provide greater detail.

As usual, the pages of the manuscripts are covered with lines of handcrafted calligraphy. Ornate initial letters, richly colored, spout tendrils that wind about microscopically detailed pictures. There's a kind of sensuous tactility about them. Most modern viewers know they bear on themes and stories from the Bible, the life of the spirit and the age. Usually, however, they remain remote. Why do these books seem so mysterious? Why do they look the way they do?

These are the kinds of direct, childlike questions we stop asking at a certain point because they're never answered. The great delight of this exhibition is that it definitively illuminates the illuminated manuscript. The curator, graduate intern Diana Goodwin, set out to answer the blue-sky questions and nailed them like an Olympic medalist.

Her thesis, simply put, is that medieval books were made to be memorized. Their highly visual character was based on the belief that memory tends to be pictorial.

Thus texts were illustrated with well-known themes like "The Annunciation to the Shepherds" in a volume by the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book. The lovely picture certainly reinforced memory but the artist went further. The image is surrounded by a border of flowers and insects recalling the poetic belief of the time that memory itself represented the "flowers and fruits of wisdom." Similarly, birds depicted the idea that "words fly away unless caged in memory."

Modern viewers are often puzzled by marginal illustrations like one of a bizarre chimera in a 14th century Paris breviary. Once again the interpolation of humorous or shocking imagery was intended to make the experience of the book memorable.

Another device was the use of diagrams. One example from the Decretals--a tome on canon law--is called "Tree of Consanguinity; Table of Affinity," a kind of family tree. Such map-like pictures simplified the recall of complex relationships.

The exhibition also points out that as much as the pictures aided memorization, they also depended on it. Many of these books include storytelling pictures such as an elaborate battle scene from the Shah'Abbas Bible. Despite its highly illustrative quality, only familiarity with the base text, in this case the Book of Samuel, would let the viewer in on exactly what was going on in the pictures. Thus memorization makes the experience of reading and looking resonate.

We live in a civilization that scorns memorization and certainly doesn't require any such deep knowledge of texts like the Bible. Very few contemporary viewers would look at the Shah'Abbas battle scene and twig to the fact that it represents an event from the Book of Samuel. Most of us would certainly also miss the subtle poetry of Georges Trubert's "The Madonna of the Burning Bush." In the Bible, God appeared to Moses in a flaming bush that was not consumed by the blaze. Similarly, Mary's impregnation with Jesus did not take away her virginity. It's a wonderful metaphor of the purification of spiritual passion.

Much of that kind of ecstasy has disappeared from this culture. It lingers in modern artworks--particularly collages like that of Joseph Cornell and Jess. Such work evokes what we call nostalgia and sentimentality. It is really the memory of memory. This exhibition is in itself a brilliant and poetic piece of scholarship that is altogether unforgettable.

* The J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, through Oct. 1. Closed Mondays, advance parking reservations required, (310) 458-2003.

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