'Shrunken Treasures': Small Wonders At The Walters

Critical Eye Art

August 09, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Starting Saturday, a miniature Quran no larger than your thumb will be on display at the Walters Art Museum.

Page after page of the 17th-century text from Turkey is filled with words that look as though they were scrawled by fleas. Each of the original's 114 "suras" or chapters is faithfully reproduced in its entirety.

Talk about reading the fine print.

"How can little things possess so much power?" the Walters' Ben Tilghman wonders. "As long as there has been writing, there have been miniature manuscripts. They can be found in cultures all over the world, and they've been fascinating people for hundreds, even thousands of years."

The 30-manuscript exhibit that Tilghman curated, "Shrunken Treasures: Miniaturization in Books and Art," might be small in scale, but it poses big questions:

What's the appeal of a volume that's too small to read? And what explains the seemingly universal fascination with tiny objects, from books to electronic "toys" such as cellphones and laptop computers?

The oldest manuscript in "Shrunken Treasures" - and it's more of a tablet than a book - was written between 1850 and 1700 B.C., while the most recent was created in 1925.

The volumes range in size from one pica, or roughly the dimensions of a typed capital letter on this page, to an early-17th-century prayer book made for Marie de' Medici that, at a whopping 5 inches by 4 inches, is technically too large to be classified as a miniature.

Several manuscripts are sacred texts, while others, bedecked with gold and jewels, are eminently secular. Still others are purely functional. "It's interesting that the museum would mount this exhibit during a period when there's this huge debate about whether the physical book matters anymore," says Judith Pascoe, an English professor at the University of Iowa, who has written about the psychology behind collecting miniature books.

"So much information is digitized now that you no longer need to go to the library, but can look it up on your computer. There's a lot of discussion as to whether a book is just its content, or if it's also the material object. Is it important to handle a book, to experience its smell, to open its binding?"

She elaborates on the paradox in an article that appeared in 2006 in The American Scholar magazine, noting that in many small books, the text clearly is secondary to the gorgeously decorated covers. "You will not find a miniature 'Ulysses' or even a miniature 'Jane Eyre,' " she writes, "unless it has been so severely abridged as to go from being a novel to an anecdote."

It's tempting to reach the same conclusion about books filled with text that's nearly too small to be seen by the naked eye. And true enough, some of the ancient tomes displayed at the Walters were never meant to be read - at least, not by mortals.

"We have a wonderful gold scroll from Byzantium inscribed with a curse that was meant to protect the owner," Tilghman says. "Even when it's unfurled, it's too small to be read by humans. But it doesn't matter, because the Evil Eye can read it. As long as you carry the parchment with you, you're protected. You're condensing supernatural forces into something you can hold, literally, in the palm of your hand."

When Pascoe perused a contemporary catalog of miniature books, she found that most offerings aren't novels but inaugural addresses, sermons, dedications and eulogies - in short, writings with an implicit moral message.

That may be no accident. According to Tilghman, the effort needed to decipher tiny writing may make readers more receptive to inspirational texts.

"Miniature books require intense concentration to be read," he says. "To see them clearly, you have to pull the book very close to your face. It fills your field of vision. Your breathing slows down, and you can lose track of time. These manuscripts promote a meditative state in the reader, amplifying their spiritual power."

And there's no denying the sensual allure of tiny tomes. The plainest are undeniably cute, while the most carefully crafted are nothing short of exquisite. For instance, each of the 52 pages in Marie de' Medici's prayer book is hand-cut into a different lace pattern. "It's so astonishingly intricate and detailed, it takes your breath away," Tilghman says.

Artistry aside, it might also be that humans are hard-wired to find small things beautiful. For example, the fictitious ship captain Lemuel Gulliver found the pint-sized Lilliputians adorable but was repulsed by the giant Brobdingnagians.

Tilghman is the father of a 27-day-old daughter, and he's been thinking a lot about Gulliver as he cuddles his little girl.

"Babies are tiny people, and we're genetically programmed to love and take care of them," he says. "Perhaps we're drawn in part to tiny books and tiny cellphones because we associate them with tiny human beings."

Good things, it seems, really do come in small packages.

If you go

"Shrunken Treasures: Miniaturization in Books and Art" runs Saturday through Nov. 8 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.

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