There are four existing copies of Magna Carta — the “Great Charter” — which England’s King John grudgingly put his seal to on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede. Originally, there were at least 41 copies. Two are in the British Library. One is at Salisbury Cathedral. The fourth, belonging to Lincoln Cathedral, is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts through Sept. 1. It’s the centerpiece of “Magna Carta: Cornerstone of Liberty.”
Modest in size, the exhibition fits in a small gallery and consists of just 22 items. It’s far from modest in import; along with that Magna Carta, there are three vintage copies of the Declaration of Independence, one of the US Constitution, and at least three well-known works of art: John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere’s silver “Sons of Liberty Bowl,” and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Thomas Jefferson.
There are, in a sense, two Magna Cartas at the MFA. One is the actual object, a grayish piece of vellum bearing about 3,500 words of medieval Latin written in black ink. The scribe who recorded those words was making a document, not a work of art. There are some slightly enlarged capitals that an ascetic might even describe as ornate, though that’s hard to say because of the fineness of the script and difficulty of making out the letters within the climate-controlled case containing the charter. And that’s it for ornament. Don’t expect the most famous of medieval texts to look like the most glorious of medieval texts, illuminated manuscripts.
In fact, what most stands out visually are the parchment’s creases. This wasn’t a document meant for show. It was purposeful, the way a deed or license is. The barons who forced King John to agree to it thought that purpose was to rein in royal power and protect their rights. So it was. But Magna Carta also served a larger, if unintended, purpose: to direct future political thought and set an example for human liberty. It established such principles as the right to a fair trial and limits to taxation without representation. This is the second, and incalculably more valuable, Magna Carta at the MFA — not a well-preserved scrap of ink-covered calfskin, but a unique and uniquely influential beacon and lodestone.
That influence was felt with particular force here, in Boston, 250 years ago. None of the other items in the gallery is English or medieval. Nearly all come from the Revolutionary and Federal eras. In some, the connection to Magna Carta is surprisingly direct.
Adams is pointing to “The Charter of Massachusetts Bay,” which he described in 1765 as being “as sacred” to Bostonians “as Magna Carta is to the People of Britain.” Along with numerous other inscriptions, the Revere bowl includes the name “Magna Carta.” The words “MAGNA CHARTA” — yes, in emphatic all caps — appear on a banner at the center-top of Christian Remick’s charming watercolor “A Perspective View of the Blockad of Boston Harbor,” from the late 1760s. One often hears the Constitution referred to as a living document. For the colonists, many of whom had begun to think of themselves as Americans at home rather than Englishmen abroad, Magna Carta was a living document, too.
The most recent items are the text of a 1958 speech John F. Kennedy delivered calling for “an urban Magna Carta” and a 1960 photographic portrait of the future president taken by Yousuf Karsh. There’s a further Kennedy connection to Magna Carta. After his assassination, a memorial to him was erected at Runnymede.
With hands clasped and eyes slightly uplifted, Kennedy looks as though he’s auditioning for the part of Maria (“Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”) in “West Side Story.” The contrast with the Houdon bust of Jefferson is unnerving. The sculptor has managed to impart a wondrous sense of personality to stone, while the photograph looks like a gruesomely lit waxworks. If only the portrait had been arranged so that Kennedy were facing Magna Carta, then there’d be the suggestion that that was the object of his reverential gaze.
The exhibition is a collaborative effort. There are items from the Massachusetts Historical Society, Kennedy Library and Presidential Museum, and New England Genealogical Society, as well as the MFA. As Magna Carta is a cornerstone of liberty, so are museums cornerstones of cultural memory. To see them join together like this is gratifying.
After the MFA exhibition, the Lincoln Magna Carta will travel to the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, then the Library of Congress. Back in England, it will join the other three copies next year for a three-day celebration at the British Library of Magna Carta’s 800th birthday. It’s like the Beatles reuniting, only with a different kind of music.
(Note: The idea of observing Independence Day by going to see a copy of Magna Carta — not to mention copies of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — has obvious appeal. Alas, the museum is closed on July 4. So maybe July 5 or 6? Think of the long weekend as honoring liberty no less than revelry.)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.