Two incredible examples of medieval book art are on rare view in New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting the hefty Winchester Bible, and the Morgan Library and Museum is celebrating the Crusader Bible and its vivid battle scenes.
The Winchester Bible: A Masterpiece of Medieval Art opened earlier this month at the Met, displaying the bible beneath a ciborium — or altar canopy — dating to the 12th century, along with supporting artifacts. Made around 1200, the bible is on loan from Winchester Cathedral in England during renovations, the first time it’s journeyed to the United States. That is, except for a double-sided frontispiece that’s part of the collections at the Morgan Library. The exquisite page depicting scenes from the lives of David and Samuel is one of the unbound calf-skin folios on view. The book is adorned throughout with rare pigments like lapis lazuli and gold painted by at least six artists, accenting a text that a single writer inscribed over 30 years.
Meanwhile The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece, showcases the Morgan Library’s usually off-view tome as it undergoes conservation. In its pages, the divine violence of the Crusades comes to life in illustrations that transport Old Testament tales to 13th-century France. There’s a connection between the two exhibitions in the importance of liturgical themes to medieval art (Ken Johnson at the New York Times wrote jointly about them earlier this month), but they’re also extraordinary opportunities to see the best bookmaking of an era when it was done by hand.
Yet they are distinct viewing experiences. At the Morgan Library, over 40 illustrations from the book are on view separately, spotlighting the six unnamed contributing artists, all of whom relished the war stories, like Saul taking down the Ammonites, and gruesome bits, like David chopping off Goliath’s head. This bible had no text when it was made, and as it traveled from hand-to-hand, leaving its birthplace in Paris for Italy, Persia, Egypt, England, and New York, it acquired eclectic marginalia describing scenes in Persian, Latin, and Judeo-Persian.
The Winchester Bible, on the other hand, is open to just one of its giant 23-inch pages, with a new page revealed each month. As a debut, it’s open to the Book of Genesis, a towering “I” for “In principio” — “In the beginning” — lining one side. And on a side note, over in Brooklyn, Franciscan manuscripts from the 13th century are on view at Borough Hall, having left Italy for the first time in 700 years. While New York always has some wonder on view, it’s an especially rich time to look back to medieval art through these rarely seen illuminated texts.
The Winchester Bible: A Masterpiece of Medieval Art continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 8. The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece continues at the Morgan Library and Museum (225 Madison Ave, Murray Hill, Manhattan) through January 4.