'Gothic Revival' doesn't rival original works


January 09, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Two versions of Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane -- how alike they are and yet how different. Almost the same size, both are illuminated manuscript pages; both have floral borders on gold backgrounds surrounding small pictures of the scene in the garden. But one is rather serene and done in delicate colors, while in the other, Christ, clothed in blue and almost garish pink, collapses into the arms of an angel like a ham actor doing a death scene.

The first is from a book of hours of about 1500, by a Flemish artist. The second is a forgery by William Charles Wing, who in the mid-19th century cashed in on the vogue for medieval art by taking another book of hours of the same period and adding his own illuminations.

In the Walters Art Gallery's latest manuscript show, "The Gothic Revival: The Illuminated Manuscript in Medieval and Modern Times" (through April 7), Wing is described as "one of the most skillful imitators of the Flemish style of about 1500." But if this delightful show demonstrates one thing above all, it is that the art of the Gothic revival doesn't equal the real thing.

The 19th century's interest in the medieval period fostered the study of illuminated manuscripts and the creation of new ones, whether honest reproductions or forgeries that masqueraded as old works, whether hand done or printed with the process of color lithography.

Walters curator Elizabeth Burin has brought together a fascinating group of objects that shows both the 19th century's depth of interest in the Middle Ages and how the products of that interest often just don't measure up.

There are carefully executed manuscript models for printed editions of old books, their illuminations drawn directly from original sources. There are books of illuminated letters and decorative motifs upon which 19th century illuminators could draw. There is a set of lessons in illuminating, shown near a box of paints and paint brushes made especially for "Illuminating & Missal Painting." And there is a group of illuminated initials copied from a 13th century manuscript in 1895 and kept ever since in a book on manuscript illumination.

And then there are the comparisons, which on the whole exhibit the inferiority of the 19th century product. In Paris in 1852-1853, author and illustrator Albert Racinet copied a 14th century Italian manuscript in his own hand to be used as a model for a printed version. The 14th century book is not present but Racinet's manuscript copy and the printed version are, the latter comparatively flat and lifeless in comparison with the hand-done page.

A 19th century book of prayers from Lyons (1886-1887), whose pages are actually woven silk, claims that it is based on 14th to 16th century manuscripts, when its figures clearly copy those in the 1846 Paris book of hours shown nearby.

One can only wish this show could have been bigger -- although, given the size of the Walters' manuscript gallery, it couldn't. An hour here seems like a few minutes.

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