Fit For A King

Picture Bible created for a Christian king carries in its beautiful pages a message for many religions.

October 27, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In days of old, when knights were bold, good King Louis of France commanded: "Make me a picture Bible the likes of which the world has never seen!"

And so it was done. The result would become one of the greatest art masterpieces of a Gothic era fabled for its soaring cathedral architecture, a heroic retelling of the Old Testament in brilliant, multicolored painted images that evoke all the pomp and pageantry of the Age of Chivalry.

Now that picture Bible, created for France's King Louis IX sometime around the year 1250, is the centerpiece of a fascinating new exhibition that opens today at the Walters Art Museum, The Book of Kings: Art, War and the Morgan Library's Medieval Picture Bible.

The show, whose theme of knights in armor and tales of love, jealousy and betrayal should appeal to young and old alike, offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for viewers to see 26 separate pages from the historic volume (belonging to the Morgan Library in New York), which was recently unbound for conservation. The Walters' exhibition puts this fabulously illuminated book in historical context by presenting it alongside dozens of related objects from the museum's superb collection of medieval religious art, illuminated manuscripts, armor and weapons.

"The Morgan Library's Picture Bible is one of the greatest masterpieces of the medieval world," said William Noel, the Walters' curator of manuscripts and rare books.

"Packed with paintings of astonishing quality, this book not only portrays such familiar stories as Noah's Ark, Samson and Delilah, and David and Goliath, but also provides a window onto 13th-century life, because the artists depicted biblical events in contemporary settings, making them all the more vivid in the eyes of the reader."

That's in part what makes this exhibition so fascinating today. In addition to depicting the social classes, costumes and manners of the day, the artists who painted the Picture Bible were also inspired by the great events of their time. In interpreting the old biblical stories in contemporary terms, their chief reference point was the Crusades, the 200-year-long struggle of Europe's Christian kings to retake the Holy Land from the conquering armies of Islam.

Louis IX commissioned the Picture Bible shortly before embarking on the first of his own two Crusades in 1248. Not surprisingly, then, many of the stories depicted in his Bible involve the great warrior heroes of the Old Testament - King David, Saul, Joshua - and the battles in which they triumphed.

Though the 13th century was overall a time of relative peace and prosperity in Europe, warfare was a constant preoccupation among the various monarchs, and the period was intermittently marked by violence and conflict. The artists who created the Morgan Picture Bible meticulously recorded the arms and armor worn by the era's feudal knights - finely wrought steel helmets, shields and chain-mail suits - as well as the brutal, bloody combat in which they engaged.

Many of the Picture Bible's paintings are reproduced in mural-scale illustrations in the galleries, allowing visitors to experience these action-packed images with the same visual immediacy Louis and his courtiers must have enjoyed in private viewings of the work.

One gallery wall, for example, is completely taken up by an 8-by-11-foot reproduction of the pages recounting the story of Noah and the Ark.

The tremendous scale of the reproduction throws the drama and artistry of the image into sharp relief, suggesting that the picture's brilliant colors and realistic detail may well have represented for medieval viewers an overwhelming visual experience akin to today's cinema.

In the centuries since its creation, the Picture Bible commissioned by a Christian crusader king has led a peripatetic existence whose wanderings eventually brought it into contact with all three of the world's great monotheistic religions.

After Louis' death in 1270, it disappeared for several centuries, only to turn up in the collection of a Polish cardinal in the city of Krakow in the early 17th century. By then, Christian commentators apparently had already begun annotating its illustrations with Latin descriptions of the various scenes depicted.

Soon after, the Bible was offered as a diplomatic gift to the Persian Shah `Abbas, whose Muslim scholars added their own Persian-language Arabic script beside the original Latin notes. In the 18th century, the Bible passed into Jewish hands, and a second set of Persian-language annotations was added in Hebrew script.

"It may seem extraordinary that an artistic masterpiece that was produced in an age of conflict between cultures should nonetheless have appealed to so many," Noel said. "But in fact, the Old Testament stories in the Picture Bible are the common heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims. In its 750-year history, the Picture Bible has been owned by members of all three faiths, and all of them inscribed their understanding of the events in the margins of the book."

Interestingly, no two sets of annotations describe the same illustrations in precisely the same way - an ironic instance of a multicultural game of "telephone" in which the message sent differs from the message received in three slightly different but culturally distinctive ways.

And yet, the very survival of the book has depended on its appreciation and custodianship by many different cultures. As Noel points out, the Morgan Picture Bible is ultimately a powerful symbol of unity in a world that in many ways remains as sharply divided today as it was during the era of the Crusades.

On exhibit

What: The Book of Kings: Art, War and the Morgan Library's Medieval Picture Bible

Where: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Through Dec. 29

Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Call: 410-547-9000

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