Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Hidden Treasures at the Met Museum

by Irina Dumitrescu

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.

[thank you, Irina, for this fantastic guest post -- JJC]


Jackie said...

Wonderful review, Irina -- much better than the simultaneously gushy and condescending one in the times. I especially loved your thoughts on the relation of this show to the Bacon one. You know, one of the best pieces of writing I've read since coming to Yale was a senior thesis (for Art History) called "Francis Bacon's Medievalism," which demonstrated the artist's indebtedness to medieval pictorial ways of thinking. I think you're both on to something important...

i said...

Thank you, Jackie, for your kind comments. I think you've put your finger right on what annoyed me about the Times review -- aside from the fact that I find nothing "clumsy" about, say, the Utrecht style, the reviewer seemed to be saying, "Let's face it, this stuff is sub-par, but I can demonstrate my sophistication in finding something to like about it. If I squint."

I can totally see the Bacon/Medieval connection. Another way of phrasing my comments above would be that Bacon's work follows hauntingly but logically from the medieval invitation to look at, and into, the crucified body.

Eileen Joy said...

Irina, this is a glorious post and thank you for it, especially since I cannot be in NYC before September or October [well, maybe, but not really sure yet]. I do not think following the medieval exhibit with Bacon is at all incongruous as you more than amply demonstrate, in any case. I will share here that Francis Bacon is one of my three favorite modern painters [alongside Rothko and Stanley Spencer, with Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer running just behind them]. As I kind of assume you already know, Bacon was very much a literary artist whose sources were often culled from the premodern world, including scenes of the crucifixion and also Aeschylus's "Orestia." I teach a course on metamorphoses which begins with Ovid and runs through Marie de France on to the Grimm Brothers, Lewis Carroll, Phillip K. Dick and beyond, and one of the regular segments of the course is devoted to the painting of Hieronymous Bosch and Bacon. Deleuze, as you may well know already, wrote beautifully on Bacon.

Again: thanks for this post and helping me to feel as if I were there [loved the comment, too, about the slouching angels and Vogue models--ha!].

Eileen Joy said...

Oops: the Oresteia. Sorry, Aeschylus, although I don't suppose he cares for our modern English renditions!

Anonymous said...

EJ: "I teach a course on metamorphoses which begins with Ovid and runs through Marie de France on to the Grimm Brothers, Lewis Carroll, Phillip K. Dick and beyond, and one of the regular segments of the course is devoted to the painting of Hieronymous Bosch and Bacon. Deleuze, as you may well know already, wrote beautifully on Bacon."

Kvond: Wow, that is a course I would love to hear. MP3 it and post it to the web (!).

Talk about the Body Without Organs.

Perhaps you would be interested in my essay on transgender, Deleuze and Wittgenstein,


"Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets"

Eileen Joy said...

kvond: as always, I love reading your work; I have so many responses to so many of your posts on your own blog, but this has been a hectic time for me, travel- and writing obligation-wise, so have had to lie a little low, but just want you to know I am always reading your weblog posts.

My syllabus for the post/human course is here:


Anonymous said...


Thanks for your very positive words. As always. I am glad that some of my thoughts traverse the gap that threatens to define us all. Something about your seminar (and thank you for the reading list and descrption) touches vital issues.

I posted some of my associated thoughts...


Eileen Joy said...

kvond: I think I should mention here, also, that my course on post/human literatures is also indebted to a course Jeffrey designed a few years back on hybridity and complexity, the syllabus for which he generously shared with me.

i said...

I know I sound like I'm shilling for the museum at this point, but I should probably mention that the catalogue is available on Amazon. For, sigh, about $17 less than I paid for it in person!