Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections by Jeffrey F. Hamburger et al., and: Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections eds. by Jeffrey F. Hamburger et al. (review)
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Reviewed by
Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections. Exhibition at the Houghton Library, Harvard University (12 September–10 December 2016); McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College (12 September–11 December 2016); and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (22 September 2016–16 January 2017). Curated by Jeffrey F. Hamburger, William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis, and Nancy Netzer.
Jeffrey F. Hamburger, William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis, and Nancy Netzer, eds. Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections. Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 2016. $85. ISBN: 978-189-28-5026-3.

It is the task of an art reviewer to supply the words that describe mute objects. But the announced topic of the exhibition recently on view at three venues in Boston and commemorated in an extensive eponymous catalog makes this task unusually difficult. Beyond Words was an exceptionally rich and comprehensive gathering of illuminated manuscripts from numerous museums and libraries, tracing landmarks in the development of early books from the seventh century to the sixteenth. Moreover, the exhibition showcased a number of significant objects that have remained relatively unknown to most scholars. Hailed as "the largest exhibition of medieval manuscripts and early printed books ever held in North America" (p. 11), this event marked a significant moment for manuscript studies both in the world of medieval scholarship and also in the broader public sphere. If the pleasures of Beyond Words are not exactly inexpressible—and I will do my best to describe them here—its achievements nonetheless exceed easy summary.

Beyond Words was the first exhibition to assemble the illuminated manuscripts held in Boston as a group, highlighting resources that might otherwise be overlooked because they are dispersed among the many institutions in the area. Unusually, the exhibition itself was spread over three [End Page 256] proximate venues: Harvard University's Houghton Library, Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Everywhere the project showed the triumph of a collaborative spirit over considerable logistical challenge, for not only did nineteen local institutions lend materials, but eighty-three scholars contributed to writing the entries for the catalog. Occasionally the many hands at work produced repetitions visible to the few who would read the catalog straight through (multiple explanations of Carolingian minuscule, for example, in entries 15 and 16). Cross-references among entries—which do appear helpfully elsewhere—might have allowed the contributors to avoid such duplication. Nonetheless, both exhibition and catalog are a testament to years of successful cooperation among individuals and institutions, and an inspiring example of the rich fruit that collaboration in the humanities can bear.

Each venue of the exhibition took up a different topic, and although each could have stood alone, they also worked together to tell a developing story. The first part, focusing on Manuscripts for Church and Cloister (Houghton), included those manuscripts made by the Church for itself, more from the early Middle Ages than from later periods. The second part, Manuscripts for Pleasure and Piety (McMullen), was the largest and most extensive, ranging widely among books for lay readers: devotional books, but also classical and chivalric ones, as well as professional volumes for the practice of law and medicine. Finally, Italian Humanist Books (Gardner) offered later volumes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with a narrower geographical focus. This final collection emphasized humanist interests in content and form, often imitating the aesthetics of the classics, or the Carolingian Renaissance, even as it navigated the transition from manuscript to printed books. The three sections of the exhibition were explicitly divided by audience (religious, lay, and humanist), but overlaid on this division was an additional, more implicit, division: a chronology that moved from the early Middle Ages through the late medieval centuries to the advent of Italian humanism and the printing press. Although the symmetry between audiences and periods is not perfect, the congruence is familiar, and it provides a smooth way to organize a mass of material usefully.

The Houghton part of the show opened with a wonderful set of chained books, suggesting the ways in which institutional ownership both restricted [End Page 257] and yet ensured access...


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