Show mixes religious, secular texts

January 08, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Royalty in Medieval Miniatures," the Walters Art Gallery's new illuminated manuscript exhibit, starts out in one gear and shifts to another about halfway through. As a result, the mind can tend to wander from the main subject, with results that are not at all unhappy.

The show begins with examples of how medieval royalty was depicted in various non-religious books such as chronicles and histories. We see various activities in which kings were shown, helping to give legitimacy to the idea and the role of kingship: In a book on the Crusades, one king of Jerusalem dies and another is crowned; in a chronicle of France, King Edward of England kneels to King Philip of France -- as ruler of French territories, Edward was feudal vassal of Philip; in a law book, a king acting as judge swears in witnesses, while another king instructs his children as princes.

Then abruptly we turn to religious books, and illustrations of stories from the Bible. These stories do involve royalty, from David and Solomon to the coronation of the Virgin, but somehow, no matter how historical the Bible may be considered, to be wrenched from the socio-political milieu of the Middle Ages and thrust into the Bible is a shift that blurs the focus of this show.

As a result, one's attention can wander, which isn't such a bad idea anyway; there's always a lot to see in manuscript illuminations. Colors, for instance, such as the rich blue and green and the striking orange of the costumes in the depiction of the coronation of the Virgin from a Flemish book of hours of about 1460; nearby, in a French book of hours of about 1425-1430, one of the Three Kings of Orient wears a costume of virtually the same orange -- was this a particularly popular color of the period?

There's also the animal kingdom: From the expressive horse that figures prominently in an early 13th century history of the English to the peacock that decorates the border of the late 15th century Chronicle of the Kings of France to the almost comical camels in the retinue of the Queen of Sheba in a late 15th century French book of hours, the animal kingdom enlivens a number of these works, as it does so many manuscript illustrations.

Or one can pick out landscapes or architecture, to take other examples. These manuscript shows are always richly rewarding, and this one, even if it does shift gears, is no exception.

The show continues through March 29 at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. Call (410) 547-9000.

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