Medieval book exhibition covers wide range of tales

April 16, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Whether it's epic poem, Shakespearean drama, grand opera or folk song, it'll win more friends if it's got a good story. They liked their stories in the Middle Ages, too, as demonstrated by "Tales in the Telling: Secular Narrative Illustration in the Medieval Book" at the Walters Art Gallery (through July 7).

This latest manuscript gallery exhibit departs from the more usual show of religious books, and it also includes a wider range of illustration types than one normally expects of these shows. It has a number of the beautiful paintings that we almost take for granted in this gallery. But there are also watercolor illustrations, drawings and simple black and white woodcuts.

These are books made for the rich and the not so rich. They are not all ravishing; in fact, a few are fairly plain. But they serve as evidence of the spread of literacy, for some of them were produced for people who could read but couldn't afford laboriously written and lavishly illustrated books.

Most people who see the show, however, will no doubt be drawn to the three most elaborate pictures, each rich in color and depicting multiple incidents from the story being told. Wauchier de Denain's "Ancient History Until Caesar" (Flanders, about 1470-1480) is, as its label states, a book that "mixes fact with legend." It's open to the story of Oedipus, with no fewer than five incidents of the story depicted from the finding of Oedipus hanging from a tree to the celebration of his marriage to Jocasta.

Next to it is volume IV of Jean de Wavrin's "Chronicles of England," (Flanders, about 1480) open to the revolt of Hotspur (Henry Percy) against Henry IV in which there's simultaneously an indoor scene of Hotspur getting slapped by the king (as a dog gnaws a bone near by) and an outdoor one of his death at the battle of Shrewsbury.

And from Henri Romain's "Historical Compendium" (France, about 1475) there are scenes from the tale of Troy, including Achilles killing Hector amid a battle in which at least four people get theirs. Both the Greeks and the Trojans, of course, are wearing medieval armor.

Battle is as always a popular subject for illustration, but it's not the only one in these secular books. In fact, their subject matter includes modern and ancient history, romance, allegory, fable. Aesop's fables were popular and are shown in two versions, one with illustrations a good deal more awkward than the other.

Then there's Johannes de Capua's "Directory of Human Life or Parables of Ancient Sages" (Strassburg: about 1488-1493), which was "intended to entertain while imparting practical wisdom." It is open to an illustration of a man who hides under the bed to catch his wife and her lover together. But she knows he's there, so she says she loves only her husband. If he bought that line, the moral of this story must be that it is a lot easier to fool your spouse in 1490 than it will be in another 500 years.

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