Walters' sweet bouquet of 20 French illuminations

January 22, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

In the 15th century, the invention of printing doomed the handwritten and illuminated manuscript to gradual death. But you would never know it from the Walters Art Gallery's show "A Bouquet of French Manuscripts."

This bouquet's 20 examples form a gorgeous show. The 15th century was a period of great lavishness of decoration, and the illustrations here feature rich colors, elaborate architectural settings and detailed landscapes. No less handsome are the borders, with their intricate foliage, touches of gold, and delightful birds and animals.

It's appropriate to have this show in memory of Eleanor P. Spencer (1895-1992), a longtime art history professor at Goucher College, trustee of the Walters, and expert on 15th century French manuscripts.

Few manuscript illuminators' names are known, but a number of them have been identified by works they created, or people or places they were associated with. Spencer's particular subjects were Maitre Francois and the Bedford Master, artists active in 15th century Paris. The show is organized around works by these masters and their associates.

There is a book of hours (a book made for personal devotion) created in Paris about 1425-1430 and open to a page that shows, in addition to the main scene, three related scenes in the border. We learn from the accompanying label that the influence of the Bedford Master popularized these border scenes, and that this book's illuminator, the Master of the Golden Legend, worked with the Bedford Master on at least one project (although not this one).

Elsewhere, there is a book of hours created in Paris about 145by the Master of Jean Rolin II, an artist whom Spencer named after his patron, the cardinal of Autun. The Master of Jean Rolin II was a follower of the Bedford Master and influenced Maitre Francois as well.

In the same case is a book of hours (Paris, about 1470) by Maitre Francois given to the Walters by Spencer in memory of the gallery's longtime keeper of manuscripts, Dorothy Miner. It had been given to Spencer by another scholar, Sir Sydney Cockerell, who suggested she write her dissertation on Maitre Francois. Aside from the book's artistic interest, it is moving to know that it has associations with three admired scholars, two of whom pursued their careers here.

The show's labels are instructive, but they do leave one or two questions hanging. What, for instance, does it mean to identify a book as dating from "about 1420 and about 1480?" Were the original decorations changed by another hand 60 years later? Were more pages added?

As a whole, however, this is a visually luxurious exhibit and a fitting tribute to Eleanor Spencer.

ART REVIEW

What: "A Bouquet of French Manuscripts"

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

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; through April 10

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

$ Call: (410) 547-9000

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