Illuminated manuscripts-or miniatures, as they’re also called-are among the most difficult works of art to show in a public exhibition. Both the diminutive scale of the images and the density of the minutely finished detail require the kind of close, sustained attention we bring to reading a book. Yet security considerations and other precautions make it necessary for these pictorial miniatures to be displayed in glass cases-an awkward way to read anything. Only a page or two of a bound manuscript can be exposed to public scrutiny at any one time. Moreover, because of the fragility of the manuscripts, bright lighting is out of the question, which presents another obstacle, especially for viewers looking to the identifying text labels for basic information about rarely seen works.
Given these difficulties, it’s a wonder that we ever get to see these exquisite examples of medieval art. Similar problems obtain, of course, for the showing of the earliest printed books that were adorned with engraved illustrations. So it’s a rare double pleasure now offered to us in the exhibition called Illuminated Manuscripts and the Dawn of Printing at the New York Public Library. Be warned, however: This is a very small exhibition that is confined to a single room of modest size. Visitors must be prepared to bring to it an unusual degree of patience and concentration. You’re likely to have to wait your turn even for a glimpse of the images and texts on exhibition, and for a closer acquaintance you may have to retrace your steps many times. This is not an exhibition that can be comprehended on a single walk-through.
Yet the rewards, both in aesthetic delight and historical intelligence, are well worth the effort. For what is traced in this exhibition, albeit in somewhat abbreviated form, is nothing less than one of the great milestones in the history of Western civilization: the transition from hand-written, hand-painted manuscripts to movable-type printing-what’s sometimes called the Gutenberg revolution. On display to mark this momentous leap in culture and technology is, among other treasures, what is believed to be the first Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg to come to the United States. This oversize two-volume Bible, running to nearly 1,300 pages, is said to have been completed between March and November in 1455. It was brought to this country in 1847.
Another rarity among the early printed books is a copy of the first Florentine edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy , originally called simply La Commedia , dating from the 1480′s. It’s said to be one of the earliest books of its era to be illustrated with engravings. The example open for viewing in the current exhibition shows the engraving for Canto 2, Dante and Virgil, with the Vision of Beatrice. Although the engravings have traditionally been attributed to a minor goldsmith turned engraver by the name of Baccio Baldini, they are sometimes associated with Botticelli-but that strikes me as unlikely.
Inevitably of greater pictorial interest are the brilliantly painted miniatures in the illustrated manuscripts. The sheer vibrancy of color, the total command of draftsmanship and the sometimes-teeming epic depictions of sacred subjects-all concentrated in amazingly limited space and embellished with equally amazing ornamentation-are often breathtaking. One of the most remarkable of these miniatures is to be found in a Book of Hours dating from the 15th century: a Franco-Flemish double-page painting, on vellum, of the Annunciation of the Virgin.
But far and away the most compelling of the painted miniatures-and not quite so miniature as the others in the exhibition-are the three examples illustrating the Last Judgment, the Nativity and the Resurrection from the Lectionary of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, also known as the Towneley Lectionary. These were painted in Rome by Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), the most admired artist in this medium in 16th-century Italy. Elaborate in composition and depicting masses of figures both human and divine, they are said to have been inspired by Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Try to imagine the epic scale of the Sistine ceiling reduced to the size of a large manuscript page, and you’ll have some idea of the vast aspiration at work in these tiny paintings.
Illuminated Manuscripts and the Dawn of Printing remains on view in the New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, through Oct. 26. Everything in the exhibition is drawn from the library’s own collections. If you’re unfamiliar with the library, be advised that the easiest access to the exhibition is through the Fifth Avenue entrance, from which a slight turn to the left will take you straight to the show. Admission is free.