Biblical beauty but few revelations

October 15, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The Walters Art Gallery's latest manuscript exhibit, "The Bible Before Luther," falls into a category that's not too unfamiliar in this line of work: I'm not sure what this show's all about, but I'm grateful for what's in it.

After all, can anyone really complain about a show that has in it the Bible believed to have been commissioned about 1265 for Conradin, ruler of Sicily, with its expressive and imaginative illustrations? Who can resist a dragon with a red head and wings, yellow legs and paws, a white body and a red tail with a big white dot on the end of it?

Is it possible to find fault with a show that includes two Bibles, side by side, offering two versions of the world with the creation of Adam and Eve, one from 1483 and the other from 1507, one a hand-colored woodcut and the other a painting? The scene is essentially the same, but the two offer a telling contrast between the earlier, more forceful but stiffer image and the later, softer and more naturalistic one.

Could one conceivably have questions about a show that also includes a 1511 edition of the Apocalypse opened to a magnificent full-page woodcut by Albrecht Durer?

Well, yes, one could wonder what we're supposed to be learning here. The introductory text informs us that what above all separates Luther's New Testament of 1522 from the Bibles preceding it was that the earlier texts were the Latin translation of St. Jerome (called the Vulgate), whereas Luther went back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts for his translation.

Such matters are surely of supreme interest to scholars of the Bible, but this is an art museum. Did Luther's new translation bring about changes in what subsequently produced Bibles looked like? And if so, what was the nature of those changes? Were they more profound than, say, the changes produced by the invention of printing?

The show contains 14 manuscript and print examples before Luther's and culminates in a German-dialect edition of Luther's Bible; do the works produced before Luther's -- though in many ways quite different from one another -- have some visual common ground that separates them all from the Luther Bible?

The label for the Luther Bible says that the scheme of scenes on its title page conforms "to Luther's doctrine of human predestination." Does that mean that Luther's Bible changed the iconography of subsequent Bibles? If so, was that true of all Bibles or only of Protestant ones? How much did the changes have to do with the sources Luther used in making his translation?

In short, the show really doesn't explore the territory it seems to lay out for itself. So what we have is a group of works with no adequate explanation of what they show us about the subject at hand.

There is ample reason to go, however, for the individual treats offered.

Bibles

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tuesdays through Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Jan. 10.

Admission: Adults, $4; seniors, $3; students and 18 and younger, free; free to all on Saturdays if you enter before noon.

% Call: (410) 547-9000.

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