Institutional firepower, academic tenacity, and a peculiarly punishing brand of noblesse oblige (unique to Boston?) have combined to produce "Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections," billed as the largest exhibition of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts ever held in North America.
The show contains objects made in Europe over the course of almost a millennium. It has three venues: the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, the Houghton Library in Harvard Yard, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
It's dense. You will need a viewing strategy. Don't try to see all three shows on the same day. Try to blink regularly. Don't try to read every wall label. And most important, have lunch or a late afternoon beverage planned in advance.
The show may strain your eyes and test your powers of concentration. But it will also leave you astonished.
Boston's museums, colleges, and public libraries have some of the most important illuminated manuscripts and early printed books in America. Together they amount to an amazing scholarly resource. But they are widely scattered and mostly hidden — not only from the public but from scholars.
Jeffrey Hamburger, a Harvard art historian who specializes in medieval religious art and illuminated manuscripts, determined many years ago to fix this. He and four colleagues — William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis, and Nancy Netzer — teamed up to produce "Beyond Words," this three-month airing of almost 250 items, complemented by a catalog with entries by 83 international experts, and a separate website with audio, video, the works: beyondwords
The McMullen display is oriented toward manuscripts intended for laypeople. The Houghton focuses on those used by the church and the monasteries. And the Gardner hinges on remnants from the humanist libraries of the Italian Renaissance.
The venue with the most to see is the McMullen, which reopened this month in a new home at 2101 Commonwealth Ave. The Renaissance Revival mansion, the former residence of Boston's Catholic archbishop, was last occupied by Cardinal Bernard Law, now 84 and living in a real Renaissance palazzo in Rome. The residence was sold to Boston College to help pay for settlements between the Archdiocese and victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests (abuse that Law had enabled and lied about).
The residence was overhauled by the architecture firm DiMella Shaffer. It now has an elegant three-story, glass-walled addition, a rooftop terrace affording superb views, an atrium adorned with a stained glass triptych by John La Farge, and greatly enlarged exhibition space.
An absorbing introductory gallery acquaints us with the what and the how of illuminated manuscripts, beginning with the preparation of the parchment. "Before the scribe could write a word," points out Hamburger, "an animal had to be slaughtered and skinned, its skin soaked in lime to remove the hair (a smelly process), and its surface laboriously scraped and smoothed, first with a scraper, then with a pumice stone."
We see detached pages showing fragments and under-drawing, incomplete books, writing manuals and model books — all in an attempt to illustrate what was involved in the production of these precious works.
Illuminated manuscripts were almost never the work of a single hand. Individual authorship and ideas of originality didn't apply. Plagiarism was not only permitted, it was the point. "A work that was not excerpted or copied," explains Hamburger, "had no afterlife."
Further in, more is revealed about the way illuminated manuscripts survived (in many cases, barely) over the centuries. They were often cut up into salable fragments. Sometimes those cuttings were transformed into something new, as in an extraordinary montage of cuttings from service books stolen from the Sistine Chapel during the French occupation of Rome in 1798.
Between 1250 and 1550, no type of book was produced in greater quantities than books of hours — prayer books used by lay people. The examples on display here are breathtaking. The highlight is the Gardner Museum's book of hours illuminated by Jean Bourdichon (1457-1521), the court miniaturist who was a student of Jean Fouquet. It has been disbound for conservation, so we have a rare opportunity to look at each page.
The images, illustrating episodes from the passion of Christ, are each set within an elaborate architectural frame. Bourdichon used sophisticated lighting effects to merge this frame with the central figures, who are pressed close to the surface. As a result, the drama virtually pops out of the painted frame and off the page.
Also on show are examples of manuscripts designed for the medical and legal professions. Look out for "vein man," a diagram in a medical manual for bloodletting. And in the gallery upstairs, marvel at the 30-foot French scroll recording the history of the world, from Creation to the 15th century.
Note, too, a beautiful page from a conduct manual for women — the first produced under the actual direction of a woman, the versatile author Christine de Pizan. The page displayed shows de Pizan, exhausted by her previous book, fortified by three ladies at her bedside — Reason, Rectitude, and Justice — and sent back to work.
The smaller exhibition at the Houghton Library (the greatest repository for illuminated manuscripts in Boston) is focused on manuscripts produced in monastic scriptoria, or writing studies. Many were guides to proper living, administrative aids, rulebooks for daily life, and books used to perform the liturgy.
Included are manuscripts produced in Cistercian monasteries in the 12th century and single-leaf fragments going as far back as the seventh and eighth centuries.
We know that without monasteries, works by the great authors of antiquity would not have come down to us. A staggering number were lost in any case. But although reading was insisted upon, it was not in service to an ideal of open inquiry. Learning was very strictly regulated, so that, as Harvard literature professor Stephen Greenblatt writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began": "Without wishing to emulate the pagan elites by placing books or writing at the center of society . . . [and] without prizing either learning or debate, monks nonetheless became the principal readers, librarians, book preservers, and book producers of the Western world."
The exhibition at the Gardner Museum takes us straight into the Italian Renaissance, introducing the humanist book hunters who, on behalf of their wealthy humanist patrons, scoured monasteries for forgotten books from antiquity. They copied them into new types of books, which were easier to read, exquisitely illustrated, and eventually — thanks to the invention of the printing press — faster to produce and easier to distribute.
The exhibit displays pages from more than 60 books which at one time belonged to great humanist libraries. It's a chance to recall that Isabella Stewart Gardner was as much a bibliophile as an art lover. She began as a rare book collector in the 1880s, and never stopped acquiring them.
Clearly, tremendous prestige still attached to the handwritten, hand-illuminated book even decades after the invention of printing. Many books here are hybrids of both.
Highlights include a recently rediscovered prayer book that belonged to Pope Julius III; a page from a book produced in Venice as a diplomatic gift for the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent; and an exquisitely illuminated page, showing King David in prayer, from a breviary produced in Venice or Padua in the late 15th century.
There are also four versions of Dante's "Divine Comedy." The earliest is an illuminated manuscript. A 1481 edition, which sold by the thousand within the first three years of its release, when it came out, was the first printed in Florence (Dante's birthplace) and the first illustrated edition. (It uses engravings made after drawings by Botticelli.)
A 1487 edition is a hybrid — printed and illustrated with woodcuts but the initials and margins illuminated by hand. A 1501 edition, issued by the revolutionary publisher Aldus Manutius, was the first pocket-size Dante. It was, you could say, a forerunner to modern paperbacks, and even Nooks and Kindles.
BEYOND WORDS: ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS IN BOSTON COLLECTIONS
At McMullen Museum of Art, 2101 Commonwealth Ave. 617-552-8587, firstname.lastname@example.org, through Dec. 11; Houghton Library, Harvard Yard, Harvard University. 617-495-2440, hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/Houghton, through Dec. 10; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org, through Jan. 16.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.