Authors and illustrators are always wondering how to draw a reader's attention. From the early Middle Ages onward, one especially beautiful illustrational tactic was to enlarge or color the first letter of a text. A practical way to catch the reader's eye, this practice soon became a decorative pursuit in itself.
A manuscript exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery, "The Illuminated Initial," gives examples of how this practice flourished. Indeed, by the 13th century these letters sometimes had grown in size to frame an entire picture on a manuscript page.
Religious devotion inspired manuscript illuminators to come up with truly ingenious means of integrating word and image. A Sacramentary Missal from southern Italy made in the second half of the 11th century, for instance, has Christ seated within the text-opening letter V (for the Latin word "vere," attest ing to Christ's connection to the truth). Christ is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists, who carried his truthful words to the world.
For the decorative possibilities of these initial letters, consider an English New Testament (ca. 1130-1140). A vine-like plant and winged dragons are woven around the letter "P" so intimately that the letter seems like a form of organic architecture.
The most delightful books in the show are those in which the initial letter serves as the architectural framework for a didactic story. In these examples, the worked up initial doesn't just pull us into the text, but itself serves as an illustrated capsule of the lesson to be learned in the following words.
There is an Austrian missal (ca. 1200), for instance, in which the opening letter, "R" for "resurrexi," introduces a text used for the mass said on Easter Day. Contained within the "R" is an image of Jonah emerging from the whale, as if himself resurrected from the belly of that beast. The whale being a large creature, it is not surprising that its body forms part of the "R."
Even more clever is a Book of Hours made in Italy (ca. 1440) in which the letter "K" assumes the architectural form of a %o thick-walled church inside which three Franciscans stand before choir book opened on a lectern. This devout trio is singing the "Kyrie Eleison."
Not only are these friars convincingly depicted inside a church, but the vertical backbone of the "K" serves as a doorway at which a fourth friar stands.
"The Illuminated Initial" remains at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St., through Jan. 5. Call 547-9000.