Elizabeth Morrison, curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, heard on July 4 that British authorities had finally lifted the export ban on a 15th-century Flemish manuscript the museum bought at a London auction late last year. That the news arrived on Independence Day is an irony not lost on her.
The "Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies," a secular romance with extraordinary illuminations by the great Belgian artist Lieven van Lathem (circa 1430-1493), was sold in December from Chatsworth, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire and site of a fabled private art collection.
The ban, part of Britain's ill-conceived protectionist policy for art housed on its shores, had been imposed to allow for any British rival to match the $5.87-million sale price. When none came forward, the book joined the Getty's distinguished manuscript collection, among the greatest in the United States.
The deluxe volume goes on view at the museum Sunday. A preview of the 237-page book this week showed that it was worth the wait.
Painted when Van Lathem was about 35, the large book features eight half-page miniatures and 44 beautifully decorated initials. The best are a marvel of close observation of nature, narrative dexterity and compositional surprise. For the mid-15th century, the paintings seem far ahead of their time.
The story is even topical, in light of recent events in Cairo and Syria. The fictional romance tells of a European nobleman's fatal pilgrimage to the Middle East. Fanciful Western perceptions of the sultan's court after the fall of Constantinople, the last remnant of the far-flung Roman Empire, are like a 500-year-old back story to today's news.
The book will be open to the first illumination for three months. It shows the elaborate tomb of Gillion de Trazegnies, a medieval knight who journeyed to Egypt and died in battle as a glorious hero.
Along the way, Gillion inadvertently became a bigamist. The image shows monks gossiping at the tomb, puzzled by its mysterious sculpture of a deceased knight flanked by not one but two women.
The anonymous author of the story is the fellow in the red cap and blue tunic. He turns up three times, showing different moments in the pictorial tale of his literary telling of the tale. (Got that?) In the center middle ground he's inquiring about the tomb. In the foreground he shows the book to a trio of curious monks. In the distance at the right, the scribe hunches over a manuscript, hard at work.
Through this repetition Van Lathem takes us on a sophisticated spatial journey -- forward, backward, sideways; indoors and outdoors; past, present and future. The visual trip corresponds to a voyage that is about to unfold in the manuscript's lively text about an epic adventure.
The characters are all distinct personalities, the settings vividly described. Fantasy -- or at least artistic license -- is on elaborate but convincing display: A structural column holding up heavy stone arches at the center of the scene has vanished into thin air, since it would interrupt the visual narrative. Van Lathem makes it work by aligning the column's dangling capital with a strong vertical line in the composition, stabilizing the pictorial structure.
The only documented manuscript by Van Lathem, the Prayer Book of Charles the Bold, is already in the Getty Museum’s permanent collection, together with 36 individual leaves attributed to him. With the successful acquisition of the exquisite "Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies," the Getty says it now holds the finest collection of Flemish manuscript illumination in the nation.
That's easy to believe.