Show illuminates the curator's skill

April 19, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Curatorial scholarship is a subject the museum-going public doesn't know much about and probably doesn't think it wants to know much about. It sounds dry, esoteric, boring. Adding that the curatorial scholarship is about medieval manuscripts isn't likely to help with most people.

But hold on, now. There's apes and pea pods in them thar books, and Lilian M. C. Randall knows what they mean.

For the past 10 years, Randall, research consultant and former curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Gallery, has undertaken the mammoth task of researching and publishing a catalog of the gallery's manuscript collection, the third volume of which is nearing completion. Her accomplishment has been highly praised in scholarly quarters.

The Walters' latest manuscript show, "Manuscript Sleuthing," illuminates some of her discoveries and interpretive insights. It's enlightening and even fun at times, though flawed.

It deals with the ways in which a researcher may come to conclusions about the works under study. Sometimes it's by comparison with outside sources. The picture of the Last Judgment from a 13th-century biblical picture cycle shows St. Michael extending his arm to protect a group of the saved. Most prominent among them is a figure in a blue robe carrying an orange book. The illustration is known to be by the scribe-artist William de Brailes, and comparison of this figure with other self-portraits by de Brails suggests that this is also the artist, proclaiming himself among the saved, or perhaps engaging in a bit of wishful thinking.

Sometimes meaning is suggested by the context. A 15th-century book of hours contains a page whose border decorations consist of six giant pea pods. But are they merely decorations? Because this is a page of prayers about wisdom, Randall concludes that the peas refer to the virgin Mary, as the mother of Jesus, carrying the seed of eternal wisdom.

Sometimes things just make sense. The bottom of a page in an early 14th-century book of hours shows a group of apes in the classroom situation of teacher and students. The book may thus have belonged to a young person, who would have been amused at seeing himself -- and even more amused at seeing his teacher? -- portrayed as an ape.

One mystery that this small show poses is why, with only a dozen examples exhibited, two of them should give no indication of the sleuthing involved.

The illustration shown from Henry of Huntingdon's 13th-century "History of the English People" portrays King Stephen before the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. Did Randall discover that? The accompanying label doesn't say so.

Sometime before Henry Walters bought the 13th-century Conradin bible, many of the decorative illustrations were cut out of it. Over the years, some of them have been located, and the Walters has acquired them.

We are left to assume that Randall searched at least some of them out, and if so, it would be nice to know when, where and under what circumstances.

THE CURATOR'S ART

What: "Manuscript Sleuthing: Discoveries of a Curator"

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

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

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

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