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Christine de Pizan awakened by Reason, Rectitude, and Justice (detail), F. 1r from Christine de Pizan’s Le Livre des trois Vertus, Paris, France (c. 1405), Boston Public Library, MS f Med. 101

BOSTON, Mass. — The book has today nearly become a shadow of itself, threatening to dissipate into the digital ether. E-readers aside, unless you’re into first editions and signed books, pretty much any copy of Valley of the Dolls or A Tale of Two Cities will give you exactly what another one would. Before the printing press, by contrast, books had heft and individuality. Each one was hand-stitched with pages of calf skin, bound between bespoke boards and clasped shut when not in use to keep pages flat and deter book worms. The extra special ones had illustrations, and if you’ve got the stamina, you can see about 250 examples of them in three locations around Boston.

To make sense of this bounty, each venue has its own emphasis based on the audience for which the books were made: lay people (the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College); Italian Renaissance humanists (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum); and religious communities (Harvard’s Houghton Library). To find the most books in one spot, go to the McMullen. If you are looking for all the accouterments of current trends in curating — related objects like paintings and decorative arts and some swanky banners — head to the Gardner. For a more intimate experience, not to mention some of the oldest books in the exhibition (some dating to early in the last millennium), the Houghton is your place.

Along with the particular emphases from one gallery to the next, each place has a different curatorial voice in the accompanying wall text. The Gardner is charming and excitable, given to exclamation points! The Houghton is more somber and laconic, confident in the importance of what it offers. Reading the text at the McMullen, which frequently spills over from the conventional single rectangle of matte board onto a second, crawling with semicolons and $5 words (not that there is anything wrong with that), is like listening to an academic on uppers who was kept in solitary for a week .

Unlike other temporary exhibitions, whose attraction might be encountering masterpieces visiting from afar, the thrill of Beyond Words is not that these objects are in Boston, where they’ve been for a long time, but that they are newly visible there — each one was tucked away in storage in a local collection until flushed out for the show. They are also visible — in the sense of seeing them as if for the first time – in their aggregation. En masse, they can be viewed as a species of image rather than as an adjunct to more exhibition-hearty paintings on canvas and panel (the light in all the shows is kept vampire-low to protect the delicate colors).

Madonna and Child, F. 155r from the De Buz Hours, Circle of the Rohan Master (illuminators), Angers, France (c. 1420–25), Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Richardson 42

As such, especially to viewers accustomed to looking at paintings on canvas and panel, manuscripts are a different beast. For one, as much as the subject matter of the pages may be the same as those found on paintings — the usual run of scenes from life of Christ, for instance — in the book, the image almost never forgets the page. Figures crowd inside initial letters like a cats in a box, as in a manuscript from Spain depicting the Lord Speaking to Joshua. Individual letters sprout fine blue and red linear flourishes that travel along the margins and between lines of text. Text panels and images overlap and interact, both webbed together and held apart by intricate frames, as in the Madonna and Child from a French Book of Hours. Even the frames are framed, often by a lush growth of floral vines, or in the case of the Bourdichon Hours, a fine purple mist.

Another quality of the illuminated book that is distinctly different from panel painting is that they are works of art with explicit relationship to the body, especially the hand. Intended to be held and manipulated, the books not only offer extensive narrative development in image as much as text, but also an experience of serial revelation only possible through turning pages. The original viewer was thus not just a viewer, but also a handler, as the grubby corners of many of the pages testify.

And how they were handled dictates their scale. There are huge books with massive script intended for communal use by choirs, inspiring awe with their bulk. There are tiny books for personal devotion that suggest withdrawal into a private world, enhanced by their desirability as objects which the owner/holder now masters. These offer intricate designs intended to be ogled at close quarters, with text so small it hurts the eyes to contemplate. (Illuminated manuscripts were clearly a young person’s game.)

At any scale, colors are bright and intense, and gold embellishment is practically de rigueur. Gold leaf is used to create flat, gleaming backgrounds, or it is applied as negative space and burnished so that the vellum bulges up like inflamed skin (this effect is visible in the Lord Speaking to Joshua). Powdered gold, by contrast, is painted on, and its delicate, granular quality serves well in nocturnal scenes like the Bourdichon Hours Taking of Christ, where it crystalizes like frost on the illuminated facets of the figures and forms.

The Lord speaking to Joshua; Joshua commanding the princes (cutting from bible), Spain (1225–50), Brandeis University, Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections, Manus. 31

The multitude of objects across the three exhibitions means that you can pick up any number of themes to focus on as you go from show to show. For instance, you can consider the transition from the manuscript to the printed book, a main element of the Gardner exhibit. After you’ve become acclimated to and then greedy for the luxuriousness of the illuminations, at first the austerity of the printed page feels like a letdown. So turn away, allow your system to clear, then come back for the subtler pleasures of the printed books: admire the crisp black letters in firm margins (how did they do it without computers?); compare the whiter, more evenly textured paper to the epithelial vellum; contrast the limpid readability of the Humanist fonts (which almost make you think you can read Latin) to the opacity of the German Fraktur font, clearly kissing cousins with Klingon.

You could also ponder the prominence of women in the exhibition, not only as subjects of the images, but as actors — as readers and patrons, like Isabella d’Este, whose Book of Hours also wins for the best multi-color lettering; as artists, in the books illuminated by and for nuns; and as writers, such as Christine de Pizan, whose groundbreaking etiquette manual, Book of Three Virtues for the Instruction of Ladies, is open to a strangely topical page depicting the author, lying in bed, exhausted by her fight against misogyny, then rallying to preside, queen-like, over her court of eager female followers.

You might also collect new words, like osculatory (a spot on a page, often designated with a red cross, where worshippers may kiss), uncial (a script in all capitals), rubric (a section written red ink), and all the different kinds of books: breviaries, pontificals, missals, antiphonals, graduals, psalters, Books of Hours, lectionaries, and passionals (not to mention Bibles and gospels).

Or you could simply walk around and take stock of how much remains of each book from its passage through time. Many are complete, but some are reduced to a few sad pages — a pamphlet where once there was Proust — or mere fragments sliced from books that were dismantled to maximize profit as they were sold.

Taking of Christ, p. 22 from the Bourdichon Hours, Jean Bourdichon (illuminator), Tours, France (c. 1515-20), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 6.T.1

These cuttings point to the difference between the culture of the manuscript and our current culture of viewing art. Such precious works are available for all to view (only the Gardner is charging admission) rather than for a few to own, but we can’t all flip through the pages. Digitized versions of the books set up on tablets around the exhibitions somewhat offset this problem, though these displays demonstrate all the familiar flaws of their own technology. And nothing digital can ever quite replicate the simple act of turning a page.

Ironically, complete bound books present a dilemma to a curator: you can only show one page at a time. Adding to this difficulty, some bindings are so fragile that the books can be opened only a few inches. The result is that the books are like taxidermied animals, trapped in a single pose, chosen from a repertory of many. It puts the burden on the viewer to imagine them in action, a weight in your hand.

Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections; Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety continues at the Houghton Library, Harvard University (Harvard Yard, Cambridge) through December 10; the McMullen Museum of Art (2101 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston) through December 11; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston) through January 16, 2017.

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Natasha Seaman

Natasha Seaman is an associate professor of art history at Rhode Island College with a specialty in seventeenth-century Dutch painting.