Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2016
The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece Austin: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, December 12, 2015–April 3, 2016
Thumbnail
Large
Joshua Defeated at Ai (detail). MS M.638, fol. 10r, The Crusader Bible. The Morgan Library and Museum. Purchased by J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1916.

It is rare for an exhibition to be devoted to a single medieval manuscript. Such a display is impractical, if not impossible, given the fact that in most cases only one opening of a manuscript can be viewed at a time. Thus the display and exhibition of nearly every bifolio of one of the most sumptuously illuminated medieval manuscripts in a single exhibition—The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece at the Blanton Museum of Art—represents an extraordinary opportunity to see a significant treasure of the Middle Ages. It is all the more spectacular because this exhibition takes place in a region of the United States largely devoid of medieval objects. Moreover, how would this museum, located at the University of Texas at Austin, present such a complex manuscript, laden with imagery of violent interfaith battles, in a state sometimes better known for its lenient gun laws and restrictive immigration policies than for its philosophical appreciation of historical artifacts? Curator Jeongho Park allows the imagery to speak for itself, while gently guiding the viewer to recognize the overwhelming power of the written word to shape and alter the meaning of those images—and in the process demonstrates, ever so subtly, the contemporary relevancy of cross-cultural exchange. This is accomplished through historical didactics, innovative technology, and the spatial layout of the exhibition materials.

The history of this manuscript is extensive. Today the manuscript remains one of the preeminent holdings of the Morgan Library and Museum. Bibliophiles, in particular, are drawn to its unique history: ex libris inscriptions, Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian textual additions. First-person accounts testify to the manuscript’s journey from France to Italy in the early 1300s, to Poland and to Persia in the 1600s, to England in the 1800s, and in 1916 to New York when it became one of the prized additions to the book collection of John Pierpont Morgan by his son, J. P. Morgan. The codex has remained unbound since 1996, and its dismantled state served as the impetus for the 1998 (Verlag) and newly released 2013 (Scriptorium) facsimiles as well as the 2002 exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore entitled The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible (click here for review). The motivation for the most recent exhibitions—the 2014 Morgan Library’s The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece, curated by William Voelkle, and the current Blanton exhibition, which might be termed a “complete re-interpretation,” with several new text panels (the three introductory panels come from the Morgan exhibition), didactic technology, and comparative displays—lies in the manuscript’s imminent rebinding.

What is interesting in the Blanton’s new approach is not this history of the manuscript as an object of material culture, but rather in the emphasis on the transformation of the material within the object. The Morgan Crusader Bible, created circa 1250 in Paris, was originally designed to be a picture book of the Old Testament with a clear focus on visual opulence. It specifically omitted any text. For the most part, the miniatures present episodes of David and Saul from 1 and 2 Kings, reinterpreted in a contemporary French Gothic crusader landscape. The folios, which reveal some of the most exquisite illumination of the Middle Ages, were surely made for a notable royal, most likely the sainted King Louis IX, who would himself lead two crusades. The intricate display of late medieval military practice and arms in an extraordinary 346 scenes, in (originally) 48 folios, has earned the manuscript a place of prestige among medievalists and art historians. Respecting the strength of these images to stand on their own, the Blanton allows the stories they tell to unfold with little explanation, choosing instead to guide the narrative progression in the successive layout of the three rooms devoted to the manuscript.

The exhibition opens, naturally, with Genesis in the first room, where audiences also encounter artifacts of medieval warfare, two swords and a helmet, in the central display. Dark plum walls envelop viewers and draw them into the vibrant colors of medieval illumination. Only brief introductory text panels on the Crusader Bible and its remarkable provenance set the stage as viewers begin their passage through the Old Testament, with the chapter titles seeming to float disconnectedly above the cases containing two or three bifolia. For those unfamiliar with the content of the Old Testament, however, these titles will hold little meaning. Scholars have argued that unlike contemporary museum audiences the intended original audience would have been quite familiar with these particular stories of the Old Testament that have long been used to legitimate Christian kingship. At the same time, the Crusader Bible is remarkable because it does not draw evenly from the Old Testament. Rather it presents mostly heroes and military campaigns, thus leading to interpretations that one of the book’s goals was to validate the Crusader ethos vigorously adopted by Louis IX, thereby providing didactic exemplars for its royal reader-viewers, as has been similarly argued for other deluxe manuscripts made for the royal court in Paris—Bibles Moralisée and the Psalter of St. Louis being the most notable.

Moving beyond this particular scholarly debate, the second and third rooms reveal Park’s emphasis on the “word and image” dichotomy found in this particular manuscript. Although pride of place is again given to an example of medieval military armor—a large coat of chainmail—next to this room’s entrance is a didactic text panel that diagrams the three different texts (Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian) added to the pictorial layout. This serves to reiterate the manuscript’s long history by explaining when these different layers of script were added by each of its successive owners. The exhibition uses technology to highlight this shift in emphasis, as museumgoers can use an iPad that the Blanton has engineered to translate the three texts simply by hovering the device over a scene, facilitating side-by-side comparison of the three languages and allowing for the discovery of specific differences and discrepancies. Compounding this elevation of word over original image are English translations of the bible passages placed in each case before the folios. Although this “text-rich” approach demands a great deal of reading, in which perhaps only the most dedicated scholar would actually engage, it seems equally clear that this was not the Blanton’s sole intention. More simply, the content of this room taken as a whole serves to bring the viewer to an awareness of the complex historical context this book represents, as well as the inherent cross-cultural and interfaith relations so prevalent in the Middle Ages. The intuitive viewer will perhaps see the relevance to contemporary events here in Texas and across the globe.

Further emphasizing this cultural history, the fourth room tells the story of the manuscript’s journey to the Persian court of Shah ‘Abbas at Isfahan in modern-day Iran. Whereas the Walters’s exhibition and catalogue drew attention to the milieu of Louis IX and the crusades, the particularly timely addition of the illustrations of the tale of Yusuf and Zulaikha from a sixteenth-century Persian manuscript connects the popular love story, which stems from the Old Testament and Quranic Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, to the subject of the Crusader Bible and the shared interfaith culture of the two stories. Along with the thematic text panels that map the route and timeline of the manuscript’s movements over the next centuries, these images serve to suggest that the Persian reader-viewer would have similarly been able to relate to the narrative content of the detailed imagery of the Crusader Bible. Interestingly, where the imagery of the Crusader Bible was displayed in rather low cases, which required viewers to bend down to see details of the imagery and read texts, the Persian imagery was framed and mounted on the wall at eye level, and magnifying glasses were provided to help viewers see these delicate paintings.

The exhibition also forges new territory in its inclusion of a Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscript, which dates to the seventeenth century, not long before the time when the final inscriptions were added to the Crusader Bible. In most of the scholarship, the Judeo-Persian ownership is treated anecdotally. However, the Judeo-Persian inscriptions are equally revealing: they are not translations of the Latin or Persian, but summaries of the biblical events, and on occasion they offer corrections to scenes misidentified in the other texts. With these additions, the Blanton’s exhibition provides a much-needed opportunity to remind medieval-minded audiences and those uninitiated into the study of this period of the relevance of medieval art, life, and culture to other histories, and the role of afterlives of objects and artworks in other periods.

Almost as an afterthought, the final room of the exhibition provides a space where audiences can explore the laborious craft of turning an animal pelt into an illuminated manuscript. A video accompanied by artist and scribe tools explains how the materials were used and how long it took to make a book as rich as the Crusader Bible. Viewers were especially drawn to the examples of parchment mounted on the wall, which they could feel to understand not only the various types of this writing support, but also how luxurious they are to the touch. This room devoted to manuscript making captivated audience members, yet it was located at the end, and thus served to impress the viewer with what they had just seen rather than educate alongside the primary object. The integration of the manuscript making and Persian materials within the display of the Crusader Bible—as was done with the armor—would have allowed viewers to realize connections and discoveries simultaneously rather than linearly.

Museum professionals and art historians will continue to debate the value and quantity of visitor guidance. In the Blanton’s exhibition, the lack of overt instruction encourages appreciation of the visual material on its own terms, while the didactic and thematic text panels served to emphasize the intricacies of the word and image dichotomies that were critical to the manuscript’s reception in its various cultural contexts. It turns out that an unbound manuscript provides a rare opportunity for the study of the balance between the two curatorial issues. For a work of art largely unavailable to Texas audiences, however, this balance is crucial in helping viewers understand the value of this manuscript to the study of the Middle Ages and to their own culture. Considering ongoing current events pertaining to East and West interrelations, this manuscript and the exhibition show how a shared past is relevant to a common present. Like much contemporary art that serves to illuminate such points, it is important to recognize that a medieval object can be put to similar service. Our only regret is that the Blanton did not seize the opportunity to make this point more clear. Nonetheless, in an era where “medievalisms” in popular culture distort the historic Middle Ages, such exhibitions educate and delight new audiences on the splendor of this period’s art.

Mickey Abel
Associate Professor, Department of Art Education and Art History, University of North Texas

Karlyn Griffith
Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Art Education and Art History, University of North Texas

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.