At the beginning of "Manuscript Illumination in Flanders" at the Walters Art Gallery is a painting of a crucifixion in a psalter of about 1300. Christ is shown on the cross between the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, on a flat gold background with both the sun and the moon above. The event is rendered in an almost abstract, symbolic way, with no attempt to create a setting from the real world for it.
Toward the end of the same show is a depiction of the flight into Egypt from a book of hours of about 1510-1520, probably from Bruges.Two hundred years have passed since the other book was made, we are now in the early renaissance, and the holy family is shown in a realistic landscape with a town in the background and birds flying in a sky with billowy clouds. We can even guess it's early spring, since one tree has its leaves while another appears to be budding. On the border are renderings of insects and flowers (especially the iris) so exact they look three-dimensional.
There is still a symbolic level to this work -- we are told by the label, for instance, that the iris stands for Mary's sorrow at Christ's death -- but the principal scene is placed in a world so real that it lends credence to the belief that the people in the scene actually did what they are shown to be doing.
The growth of naturalism from the early 14th to the early 16th century is one of the most interesting features of this exhibit, the best of these small-scale manuscript shows in some time. The introductory text singles out three major periods within this span and the books chosen illustrate the main characteristics of each, simplicity of image gradually giving way to more complex treatments with the introduction of landscape, perspective and other elements that gradually grow in realism. Not only is this true of the main illuminations; in the margins, monsters and anthropomorphic animals give way to flora and fauna we see around us in our everyday lives.
Toward the end, the names of some of the artists become known, and their depictions take on a three-dimensionality of character. The show ends with two panels bearing 32 scenes from Christ's life by Simon Bening; in these, we can almost hear the laughter and jeers of those who mock and torture Christ. A dramatic unfolding of the tale carries us along from scene to scene as if we were witnessing a play.
It would have been even better to learn more about the Flemish style. But what we have is enough to make a coherent and instructive show.
Don't only look at these beautiful pictures as illustrations of the points being made in the didactic material, however. Go through once reading the labels, then go through again just looking at the pictures. You'll see things you didn't see before.
The show runs through June 28 at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. Call (410) 547-9000.