Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2003
William Noel and Daniel Weiss, eds. The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum in association with Third Millenium Publishing, 2002. 224 pp.; 50 color ills.; 121 b/w ills. Paper $55.00 (0911886540)
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, October 27–December 29, 2002; Academy Art Museum, Easton, MD, September 12–October 24, 2003; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, March 6–June 6, 2004; Mitchell Art Gallery, St. Johns College, Annapolis, MD, November 14–December 26, 2004; Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA, January 30–April 25, 2005

The Morgan Old Testament (New York, Morgan M638, also known as the Morgan Crusader Bible, the Morgan Picture Bible, the Maciejowski Bible, and the Shah ‘Abbas Bible) is an extraordinary illuminated manuscript in the mid-thirteenth-century French Gothic style. Almost certainly made for or within the entourage of the crusader, Louis IX of France (1226–1270), or “Saint Louis,” the manuscript comprises a pictorial narrative of the early books of the Bible, from Genesis 1 through 2 Kings 20, and emphasizes the martial history of the Israelite advance on the Holy Land in a way that was “inspired and inflected by the aspirations of a culture dedicated to the ideal of the crusade” (32). Although Latin captions narrating the events depicted in the full-page images were added in the early fourteenth century, the volume was initially free of any texts; in subsequent centuries, Persian and Judeo-Persian inscriptions were written in the margins during the period of the manuscript’s Near Eastern ownership. This exceptional volume belongs to the collection of important works of art focused on Old Testament narrative produced at the French court in the thirteenth century, which also includes the first four Moralized Bibles, the narrative glass of the Ste-Chapelle, the Psalter of Saint Louis, and the Arsenal Bible produced at Louis’s crusader court in Acre. Important recent studies by Daniel Weiss (Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998]), John Lowden (The Making of the Bibles Moralisées [University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000]), and Alyce Jordan (Visualizing Kingship in the Windows of the Sainte-Chapelle [Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002]) have refocused attention on the ideological and cultural importance of this collection of works.

Renewed interest in the cultural and artistic production of Louis’s court has coincided with the appearance in 1998 of a lavish new facsimile edition of the Morgan Old Testament, which was followed in 1999 by a companion commentary that includes up-to-date discussion of all the paleographical, codicological, linguistic, and thematic issues related to M638 (The Morgan Crusader Bible [Luzern: Faksimile Verlag, in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1998]. The commentary includes contributions by Daniel Weiss, William Voelkle, Sydney Cockerell, Eran Lupu, Sussan Babaie, and Vera Basch Moreen). The production of the facsimile, which necessitated the dismantling of the codex, was capitalized upon for an exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, showcasing the manuscript in the context of other illuminated manuscripts and cultural artifacts from the period. The exhibition catalogue, The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible, can now be added to the growing bibliography of new scholarship relating to the pictorial culture of the thirteenth-century French court.

The book is divided into two parts. The first includes a series of thematic essays on M638 itself, cultural aspects of the crusading context in which the manuscript should be placed, and its reception in subsequent centuries. The second part constitutes the catalogue of the exhibition proper, with a series of interpretive commentaries on individual selections from M638 juxtaposed with a variety of contemporary manuscripts, works of art, and other artifacts from religious, military, and domestic life of the Middle Ages. The Book of Kings imitates the structure of the exhibition, which exploits the fact that M638 is a “complicated historical artifact” that can therefore “be used as a vehicle for exploring a number of aspects of medieval life, culture, and kingship” (145). The generously illustrated volume reproduces in color many of the spectacular full-page illuminations of M638, including enlargements that compel greater appreciation of the beauty and detail of the pictures; it also includes other black-and-white comparanda as well as an index and a useful bibliography (divided by subject).

In the introductory essay, “Portraying the Past, Illuminating the Present,” Weiss discusses the history and dating of the codex, contextualizes the manuscript within the politics and cultural milieu of the royal court, and summarizes the relevant technical information (workshops, hands) regarding M638, covering much of the same ground treated in his contribution to the facsimile commentary. He also presents an interpretive overview of the Old Testament cycle, emphasizing the chivalric and military culture of Louis’s court, which must be seen as the backdrop for the pictorial narrative of M638. In “Picturing the Bible in the Thirteenth Century,” C. Griffith Mann discusses the strategies and decisions made by the artists in composition, format, and iconography. He also engages directly the issue of whether the models for M638 came from wall painting or stained glass, emphasizing instead other manuscript sources. Kelly M. Holbert’s “Picturing the World in the Thirteenth Century” examines how the biblical narrative represents elements of thirteenth-century French life, whereby biblical actors are shown in thirteenth-century dress; she discusses in particular repeated images of the Ark of the Covenant found throughout M638, which she argues are drawn from the medieval tradition of house reliquaries.

A series of three essays by eminent historians treat various aspects of Crusade culture that are crucial in understanding the narrative priorities of M638. In “The Politics of War: France and the Holy Land,” Jonathan Riley-Smith offers an overview of the French attitude toward the Holy Land and the Crusades in the thirteenth-century as well as the principal events of Louis’s two campaigns. In the second half of his essay, the author explores a motivating factor that, he says, “does not appear to have been given the prominence it deserves” (76). He argues that Louis’s devotion to relics, and in particular relics of the Passion, is related to the high value the king set on physical contact with the Holy Land and the sacrifice (read: passion) of crusading. Stephen Fliegel’s “The Art of War: Thirteenth-Century Arms and Armour” gives an introduction to thirteenth-century weaponry that allows for an appreciation of the accurate details of the images of military accoutrements which fill the illuminations. The essay is illustrated with helmets and swords from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ironically, since examples do not survive from the earlier period, the best evidence we have for thirteenth-century practice is often the illuminations of M638 itself. In “The Rituals of War: Departure for Crusade in Thirteenth-Century France,” William Chester Jordan discusses the liturgical and paraliturgical rites that crusaders—“militant pilgrims”—underwent as they left for and returned from the crusades, paying particular attention to the acts of peacemaking, reconciliation, and penance done by Louis IX in preparation for his first departure in 1248. It is hoped that this fascinating essay, important to an audience wider than those interested uniquely in M638, will not be overlooked.

Two final essays discuss the reception of M638. William Noel’s “The First Iconographer of the Morgan Picture Bible” explores the strategies of and rationale for (and mistakes made in) the addition of the Latin inscriptions around 1300. Noel argues that the person responsible was indeed an iconographer in the sense that he sought not to summarize the biblical events in a parallel narrative but rather to elucidate the events depicted in the images. In “Shah ‘Abbas and His Picture Bible,” Marianna Shreve Simpson discusses the political, diplomatic, and cultural context for the gift of M638 by Discalced Carmelites, who were on a diplomatic mission to the court of Shah ‘Abbas in 1608. The second half of Simpson’s essay speculates on what ‘Abbas’s reaction to the picture bible might have been given the context of Islamic bookmaking and considering the Old Testament narratives that would have been recognizable within the Islamic tradition.

Following these essays is the exhibition’s catalogue, written by Cathleen Fleck and Richard Leson. It is divided into thematic units—each section representing a room of the exhibition—that reproduce the experience of the show, such as “Medieval Storytelling,” “Model Warriors for a Medieval King,” “David: A Model King,” and so forth. These divisions are preceded by a short essay and are followed by solid catalogue entries.

The Book of Kings is a useful and affordable introduction to the manuscript for those who do not have ready access to the expensive facsimile edition, and instructors interested in teaching M638 will find this volume a rich resource for images and information.

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