the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan

Posted by gninja on June 27, 2007


A month ago, I went to see the exhibition of the Las Huelgas Apocalypse manuscript at the Morgan Library and Museum (I think that’s their new name– they underwent some kind of re-branding after their major renovation). In short:

The Las Huelgas Apocalypse is the largest and latest (1220) of a five-hundred-year series of medieval illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of Liébana. The series is considered Spain’s most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination. Visitors to the exhibition have the rare opportunity to view fifty of the Las Huelgas miniatures because the manuscript was disbound for the preparation of the facsimile; the leaves will be displayed in their original order.

Unfortunately, no photography was allowed (goodness, I hate that policy), so I can’t show any of my own images of the gallery.

The exhibition was laid out quite simply, in one room, with pages from the Las Huelgas manuscript behind glass frames mounted on the walls around the room. In the center of the room was a facsimile of the manuscript (a rather good idea, I thought), along with some cases filled with other Apocalypse manuscripts for comparison purposes. Simple enough.

I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, maybe a bit less, and– as someone who studies manuscripts– I felt a bit disappointed in myself for not lingering. It took some reflection to figure out why I wasn’t all that impressed or intrigued.

(By the way, if you want more information on the exhibition, there are two reviews here and here. )

With the exception of the small selection of other manuscripts on display, it was pretty much a one-man show. The manuscript was displayed with virtually no supporting actors (to carry out the analogy), so all our attention was of necessity focused on it alone. True, it’s a spectacular manuscript, filled with eye candy. But– and I think this is a problem in the study of medieval art in general– there was no attempt made whatsoever to create an argument, to get the viewers to think. Which leads me to believe that the aim of such an exhibition can only be two things: 1) to put up an aesthetically impressive objet d’art and have audiences ooh and ah; and 2) to appeal to an audience already familiar with the art on display and equipped with the knowledge to make his own comparisons, or to draw her own conclusions about the work.

I understand that I’ve been fostered in the still strong Wolfflinian tradition of art history that encourages comparison (if you have access to JSTOR, I recommend this article), so I’m predisposed to wanting the images I look at placed up against other images. Still, though. These are Apocalypse manuscripts. There are so many ways to go with this– it could’ve been a great, great exhibition. And not necessarily in the (supposedly sensational) way that the Royal Academy dealt with the topic in 2000.

First, and perhaps this is a bit of a quibble, if the title of your exhibition is a play on words, that play on words should be justified. Otherwise–as I think it is in this case–the title is just cutesy and irrelevant to the content of the show. But if you’ve got a title like “Apocalypse Then”, why not include contemporary images (or imaginings / allusions) of the Book of Revelation? It would have made it a more far-ranging show (though by no means as far-ranging as one that would use contemporary apocalyptic images), but keeping things within limits is what curators are meant to do anyway.

But if something like that is too gauche for the “stately” Morgan, then why not draw better comparisons between the other Apocalypse manuscripts on display? There is a longstanding tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts, and we learn a lot about visual communication from the different ways in which these manuscripts are laid out and illuminated. Just one example demonstrates what I mean: the decision to include St John (the author of Revelation) as a witness to the scenes, outside of the miniatures’ frames, or to keep him as an active figure within the frames of the miniatures determines how the reader-viewer will conceive of the text– as a form of prophecy or vision, or a mystical experience felt viscerally by St John.

So while it was enjoyable to see the folios of this manuscript and digest the images, I could also have gotten the same experience from a facsimile soon (I assume) to be purchased by the arts library at Columbia. When I go to a gallery or museum I want more than just to look– I want also to be challenged to think about what’s before me, and it’s the duty of the curator to spark that process.

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