'The Illuminated Initial' radiates with humor and visual delights


October 22, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Illuminated manuscripts . . . Middle Ages . . . boring, yes?

Boring, no.

Take a manuscript from "The Illuminated Initial" at the Walters Art Gallery, open to Psalm 1, which begins with the big letter B. In the top lobe of the B sits David with a crown on his head playing the harp. In the bottom lobe, he decapitates Goliath with a sword so big the rather diminutive David seems hardly able to lift it.

Below, standing on the bottom of the page's ornamental border, are Goliath with his spear and an apprehensive expression, and David with his sling and shepherd's crook -- only the crook looks like a hockey stick and the sling looks like a lacrosse stick. Over in one corner, under a tree, huddle several sheep, looking as though they're lying on top of each other, and over in the other corner sits Saul playing -- would you believe? -- the bagpipes. At the top of the page, a lion minces along as if auditioning for "The Wizard of Oz."

This page, from a 13th century French Psalter and Office of the Dead, is really quite beautiful; but it also shows how much fun manuscripts can be. "The Illuminated Initial" has been selected to show the importance of these letters and how their illustrations changed over the centuries; but it also provides a feast of visual morsels, often funny to modern eyes, and including a veritable menagerie of animals, real and otherwise.

As the show's text points out, before the invention of chapters the first letter of a section of a manuscript often stood as a division point, and was embellished. Sometimes, one or two big illuminated initials covered most of a page.

Essentially, the show teaches, there were two main types of ornamentation. Up until about the 12th century initials were "decorated" with scrolls and curlicues, birds, animals, foliage and other such ornamentation, as with the late 10th century French Gospel open to the first page of Matthew's gospel. Here, most of the page is covered by the two letters LI, sprouting long-beaked birds, and animals out of whose mouths foliage gushes.

Later came the heyday of the "historiated" initial, with one or more pictures illustrating stories, as with the scenes of David described above. Sometimes the illustrators could be highly imaginative: The letter K, in a 15th century Italian book of hours, has become a church with a group of monks standing at a choir book inside. The vertical stroke of the letter is the wall of the church where another monk knocks at the door.

Elsewhere we see Christ seated in the letter V, David waist-deep in water in the letter S, a dragon biting its tail in the letter P, and other such wonders from the anything but boring Middle Ages.

"The Illuminated Initial" continues through Jan. 5 at the Walters, 600 N. Charles St. Call 547-9000.

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