Around the dawn of the 6th century, the philosopher Boethius noted that "music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior." It's still hard to argue with him.
In the centuries after Boethius, artists illuminated music's benefits and potential pitfalls in remarkable ways, producing the sorts of works that form an intimate new exhibit at the Walters Art Museum.
"Seeing Music in Medieval Manuscripts," which will be on display into mid-October, was curated by Chiara Valle, the Zanvyl Krieger Fellow in the Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the museum.
"The idea behind the show was to collect works of art showing people or animals making music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance," Valle says. "A lot of these works have not been exhibited for a long time."
The curator combed through several hundred items in the museum's collection before she settled on a vivid sampling that brings into focus the powerful place of music in secular and religious life.
Among the many charming images is one from a Flemish Book of Hours, ca. 1450, depicting shepherds who greet the news of Christ’s birth by dancing heartily to a sounds of a piper.
"This one is particularly sweet," Valle says, "because there is a woman holding hands with the piper."
In addition to earthly musicians, several angelic ones appear in the exhibit, including those providing celestial accompaniment as souls are freed from hell in a scene from a Flemish antiphonary dated 1290.
Angels also play a role in the vibrant "Annunciation to the Virgin," from an early 1300s French Book of Hours. Here, as mortals are shown playing music and dancing, an angel holds a scroll that contains no words.
"It may be an invitation to the reader to provide the music that is not there," Valle says.
Animals, too, pop up in the exhibit, nowhere more intriguingly than in an English Book of Hours from around 1300. The bulk of the beautifully crafted manuscript pages on display deal with the Crucifixion. In the margin at the bottom is another story entirely.
"The drawings show the fable of Reynard the Fox, who faked his own death," Valle says. “We see the mourning by other animals playing their instruments in the funeral procession, and their celebration when they learn Reynard is not dead. It’s commenting in a playful way the death of Christ."
The juxtaposition of the sacred and profane, and the way music plays a role in it, provides quite a visual jolt.
A more conventional, but no less compelling, entry in the exhibit is a large music book from Florence, ca. 1380, opened to the first pages of a chant for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
The lavish illustration for the letter 'N' at the start of the chant (the text begins with the Latin word "nunc") depicts Peter on a throne atop another scene showing his earlier release from prison.
The meticulous workmanship of that illustration, complemented by the elegant musical notation that follows, becomes all the more immediate when you pick up a headset and hear this very chant elegantly sung by members of the Peabody Renaissance Ensemble.
Providing extra context is an Italian painting from the 1500s depicting St. Anthony receiving the habit of the Franciscan order, while a group of friars sing, gathered around a stand holding a large music score like the one in the exhibit.
Another theme is music's place in education at the time, valued not just for what how it added pleasure to life. "Making music was also seen as a way of trying to reach the perfection of heaven," Valle says.
Not everyone viewed the art form so benevolently, as can be gleaned from spooky characters who haunt several illustrations of people enjoying good tunes.
"They were warning people not to get too excited by music," Valle says. "The message is: Don't have too much fun."