Tucked into a fold of the cavernous Metropolitan Museum of Art, a three-room exhibition of medieval manuscript drawings entitled “Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages” is on display until August 23, 2009. Despite the exhibition’s flowery review in the New York Times, these faded books draw few visitors in comparison with the epic Francis Bacon retrospective on the same floor of the Met. Still, medievalists will find unexpected, and unexpectedly breathtaking, treasures among them.
The collection is a particular treat for the Anglo-Saxonist. Saint Dunstan’s Classbook is on display, opened to the well-known image of the tiny monk Dunstan bowing to a brobdignagian Christ. Byrhtferth’s computus diagram fills an entire page of Oxford, Saint Johns’ College MS 17. A tenth or eleventh-century English copy of Prudentius’ Psychomachia is illustrated by eighty-nine stately images. The Arenberg Gospels, the Sherborne Pontifical, and the Bury Saint Edmonds Psalter offer examples of the dynamic and finely-detailed line drawing we know from the Utrecht Psalter. (Looking at these images I realised what the strange grace of slouching angels in undulating robes reminded me of – the “broken doll” look of a Vogue editorial model!) As if that weren’t enough, the Harley Psalter is also here in New York, unbelievably fine and brilliantly coloured. I had only ever seen enlarged black-and-white reproductions of Harley Psalter images, and thought them rough and unimpressive. Seeing the Harley in person, I realised that the exquisite lines of its drawings simply do not survive magnification, and that much of the dynamic quality of the figures results from their vivid, almost playful, colouring. Ironically but perhaps unsurprisingly, the occasional reproductions and magnifications of manuscripts on the exhibit walls were never as vibrant as the real thing.
I fell in love with other pieces as well. A ninth or tenth-century copy of the First Book of Maccabees from St. Gall features energetic battle scenes, with orange, yellow, blue, and green shields popping like bright Easter eggs from the manuscript page. A long scroll of Peter of Poitiers’ The Compendium of History through the Genealogy of Christ demonstrates that medieval artists would have appreciated flow charts and Power Point. The Sawley Map lets us imagine a world in which Europe is not at the top. And a twelfth-century English copy of Terence begins with an author portrait of the playwright and a drawing of thirteen theatrical masks waiting for use in a cupboard. While Terence looks expressionless at the reader, the masks practice a ghoulish variety of grimaces.
It is probably a mistake to follow up an exhibition on the glorious but quiet achievements of early medieval art with a Francis Bacon retrospective. Bacon’s paintings, overwhelming in both size and traumatic force, have a tendency to push anything else out of my consciousness. (And as they do so, they prove Mary Carruthers’ point about violent imagery and memory much better than any medieval manuscript could.) Still, looking at the ways in which Bacon painted people and people-parts in cages, seeing how one version of Bacon’s Pope Innocent is trapped in interlocking cages and bars, I understood some of the strange, subtle power of medieval images. Among the diagrams in the “Pen and Parchment” exhibition are a German consanguinity chart, entirely contained within the body of Adam, and a diagram by Opicinus de Canistris in which the universal church is drawn within one man’s body. These diagrams are curious to the modern eye, but they offer us a radically optimistic vision of a universe in which lines and boxes create order within the human, rather than fencing him in. In Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon opens up the human body and forces us to examine its grotesquely confused innards. In his diagram of the church, Opicinus places the crucifixion within a whole and unblemished body; he acknowledges human suffering, but shows us a way to find the meaning beyond it.