Medieval life not so far removed Review: Walters manuscript exhibit illuminates some aspects of daily life not too unlike our own.

June 05, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The Middle Ages were long ago, but maybe not so far away from our daily lives as we might think. An early 15th century French nativity scene from the Walters Art Gallery's latest manuscript show, "Daily Life in Medieval Times," shows Joseph holding the infant Jesus, a devoted new Daddy giving Mommy Mary some free time to rest and read a book in bed. If we're inclined to think about this scene a little, we might wonder how this couple roughing it in a stable manage a canopied bed and a dazzling orange-red bed covering; but hey, the artist has to have room to express himself -- and to catch our eye, too.

A major purpose of this continuing series of one-gallery manuscript shows is to present the beauties of medieval manuscript illumination in ways that make them accessible to today's viewers. Few if any of its predecessors have succeeded at that task so well as this show. Charming and at times amusing, it greets us through the pages of its 24 examples with events and objects that we might well see today -- or yesterday, at any rate.

Not so long ago a common bedroom sight was the bureau scarf, a long, thin, usually white cloth covering the top of a chest of drawers to protect it from scratches and stains. Many a bedroom also had its pitcher and basin for morning ablutions in houses where bathrooms were in short supply -- and where not long before there might not have been a bathroom at all. There they are, pitcher, basin and bureau scarf, in Mary's bedroom -- one of several scenes of the "Life of the Virgin" from a French manuscript of about 1450.

One wonders if the artist intended to imply through this group of scenes that Mary's place on the socio-economic ladder rose during her lifetime. The bottom central illustration shows the bedroom she was born in, the one above it the bedroom she occupied as an adult; the latter is larger and more richly appointed than the former.

We can also infer from more than one scene here that bathing might not have been as rare an occurrence as we with modern plumbing assume. That pitcher and basin in Mary's bedroom are for washing. In another early 15th-century French manuscript, a "Nativity of the Virgin" shows servants bringing water to fill a tub at the foot of the bed. And a funny margin illumination from a 14th-century Flemish manuscript shows a woman pushing the door closed on an apparently reluctant man entering a bath house, while nearby a boy waits his turn and another woman stoops under the weight of the water buckets she's carrying.

It may have been that by introducing such scenes into religious books, as well as by showing the saints and even the Holy Family in recognizable activities, the illuminators of these manuscripts wanted to humanize religion for the people of their own time. Or such scenes may reflect the fact that in those times religion and daily life were interwoven to a degree most of us today can scarcely imagine.

Other illustrations here, from both religious and secular books, show such activities as a group of people playing ball, a cooking scene with a dog hungrily eyeing the contents of a bowl, another dog greeting his master at the door of the house and a teacher with a group of students.

A few of the pictures are so small that details really can't be seen without the aid of a magnifying glass. But that's the one drawback of this thoroughly engaging exhibit. The explanatory labels provide much information, but wise viewers will allow their eyes to roam from what's pointed out and take in other aspects of these works such as architectural details and rich borders.

At the Walters

What: "Daily Life in Medieval Books"

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

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 18

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

Call: (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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