Travel souvenirs from the 15th century

April 16, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In the 1950s, it was the fashion for travelers to have their suitcases covered with stickers from every hotel, port of entry, steamship and airline they could find; many an expensive set of luggage was ruined in the name of advertising its owner's cosmopolitanism.

It wasn't a new idea. The medieval version was pilgrims' badges, medals purchased at shrines along the route of a pilgrimage and then sewn into clothing (you became a walking suitcase) or prayer books.

In the show "Travel in Medieval Manuscripts" at the Walters Art Gallery, there's a 15th-century prayer book from France or possibly Flanders, open to a page that bears the imprint of several of those medals, removed by a later owner of the book. It's a reminder that there was a lot of travel back in those days, too.

As this latest in the Walters' series of illuminated manuscript shows makes clear, people in the Middle Ages traveled on pilgrimages, traveled in wars and crusades, traveled in commerce and traveled on diplomatic missions.

One of the biggest and most gorgeous of the manuscripts here is Vol. 2 of "The Flower of History," open to a page showing diplomats from the Roman Empire approaching the court of the Emperor Constantine. Of course, in this 15th-century Flemish book the elaborate costumes of these diplomats are what was worn in the 15th century, not the fourth.

This may not be the most profound of the Walters' manuscript shows, but it's certainly one of the most fun. Depicted in these books is everything from the journey of the Magi or Three Kings, fitted out and attended like medieval grandees, to a fascinating pullout plate from a late 15th-century travel book, showing the port of Rhodes with 13 windmills lined up along a spit of land at the outer edge of the port.

We have, of course, St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers, carrying Christ across a river to a charming bank so out of scale that the trees grow up to about the saint's knees. We also have Saint James of Compostela, and we have Saint Louis, also known as King Louis IX of France, sailing with his army on a crusade.

One of the biggest and most interesting pictures here is from an "Ancient History Until Caesar," a depiction of soldiers boarding a ship for the battle between the Romans and the Tarentines; but of course they're dressed in medieval armor. Along the border of this illustration are depicted four curious figures -- a woman, two soldiers fighting, and a man dressed in a strange, short black and gray garment that gives him a certain air of mystery.

Speaking of borders, there are some pretty spectacular ones in this show, none more so than that on the Constantine page, with its depiction of two splendid peacocks.

As is customary with these manuscript shows, the good labels make you look at a lot of things in the pictures, but one shouldn't feel confined to seeing only what the labels point out. A manuscript illumination can contain worlds -- of architecture, landscape, costume, storytelling, decoration.

Manuscripts

What: "Travel in Medieval Manuscripts"

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

When: Tuesdays through Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through July 11.

Admission: $4 adults; $3 seniors and students; those 18 and younger free.

Call: (410) 547-9000.

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