This is the book that set St. Francis on the path to poverty.
The 12th-century collection of prayers is slightly larger than a sheet of notebook paper. A corner of the beechwood boards covering the manuscript has crumbled away and the surface is delicately pitted with wormholes. Restorers found the dried carapace of an unidentified species of insect trapped inside the pages.
It seems fitting that even after an ambitious and painstaking two-year restoration, the book that persuaded the man from Assisi to renounce earthly goods —and that resulted in the founding of the Franciscan order — appears as humble and unprepossessing as a monk’s brown habit.
Starting Saturday, the book will get its own public exhibit at the Walters Art Museum for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“The St. Francis Missal” is an intimate show in which the famous volume is shown with about two dozen paintings, ceramics, ivories and illustrated manuscripts taken from the museum’s collection.
Perhaps to compensate for the plain appearance of the star attraction, many of the artifacts surrounding the missal possess an extraordinary and seductive beauty. There’s no dearth of dazzle on display — including a 14th-century diptych said to contain fragments from the tunics of Saint Francis of Assisi and his most famous female follower, Saint Clare. The little artwork of scenes from Christ’s nativity and crucifixion are reverse painted on glass, and is so fragile that it’s going on public view for the first time in the Walters’ 86-year history.
The show has been generating excitement internationally, especially among historians and members of religious orders.
"St. Francis is one of the most beloved saints in history,” said Lynley Anne Herbert, the museum’s curator of rare books and manuscripts.
“Over time, the missal has acquired the status of a religious relic. It’s the most requested book in our collection. It inspires pilgrims from all over the world to come here to see it. At one point we couldn’t even open the missal anymore because it was in such fragile condition. Our visitors didn’t care. They just wanted to be in its presence.”
The missal is considered to be extra sacred because it is considered “an object of touch,” according to Herbert. St. Francis himself is thought to have turned the ancient pages on a morning in 1208 in the altar of his parish church, San Nicolo di Piazza, which was located in Italy until it was damaged by an earthquake in the 19th century. Worshipers believe that the missal retains a trace of the saint’s spiritual aura.
According to several accounts of Francis’ life written shortly after he died, he was inspired to dedicate himself to a life of poverty in 1208 after he and two friends — all wealthy young men — had been up all night debating about how they could best serve God.
When they couldn’t agree, “Francis basically said, ‘Let’s let God decide,’ ” Herbert said.
“They walked around the corner to the church and flipped open the missal on the altar three times, once for each member of the Trinity.” (Roman Catholics believe that one Supreme Being is manifest in three entities: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.)
“Each time, they opened the missal to a random page,” Herbert said. “Each time, the text told them to give up all their earthly goods and follow Christ. That was the foundational moment of the Franciscan Order.”
Of course, there is no video footage from inside the church on that day, so it’s difficult to know for certain that the missal that museum co-founder Henry Walters purchased in Paris in 1924 from the dealer Paul Gruel is the same volume that Francis consulted. But Herbert said that there’s more evidence to support this hypothesis than usually exists for a manuscript this old.
A dedication added to the missal in red ink specifies that the prayer book was created for the San Nicolo church. The missal appears to have been completed some time around the 1180s and 1190s (when the patron who donated the book was actively involved in local affairs), but certainly before 1228 (the missal contains a notation recording the death in that year of a local bishop).
“The feeling has grown over the last century that this has to be the book,” Herbert said.
“San Nicolo was a small parish, and it’s highly unlikely that they would have had another book like this one. This was an expensive object. The blue used in it is marine blue, and it was made from lapis that had to be imported from Afghanistan. During that period, lapis was more expensive than gold.”
The exhibit is located inside a small gallery that can hold no more than 15 people. Herbert said the staff intentionally created an intimate show “to make it easier for visitors to have a personal encounter with the book.” Surrounding the missal are cases containing artifacts that illustrate either Francis’ life or those of two of his followers, Saint Clare and Saint Anthony of Padua. (Since the number of viewers inside the gallery will be limited, visitors should be prepared to wait, Herbert said.)
The scope of the damage to the missal as described by Abigail Quandt, the Walters’ senior conservator of rare books and manuscripts, is daunting, even in retrospect.
The missal’s pages are made of goatskin parchment. During centuries of heavy use, some had become torn and stained. The original binding was replaced in the 15th century — but the glue used in the new spine attracted insects who burrowed through the beechwood boards. Over time, the lower right corner of the front board became so riddled with worm tunnels that it crumbled into dust. Even the ink used to write the text by hand had begun to flake off.
”The book was so fragile that even when it was handled very, very carefully it was developing more breakage and more cracks,” Quandt said. “It got to the point where I had to tell the curators, ‘You can take the missal out and show it to visitors, but you can’t open it.’ ”
Under Quandt’s guidance, restorer Cathie Magee slowly and painstakingly took the entire missal apart, removing and saving the ancient linen thread. She injected epoxy into the insect holes with a syringe to stabilize the wooden boards. Tears in the parchment were mended with a handmade Japanese paper that’s thin but very strong. Magee reattached the loose ink to the page with a dilute solution of gelatin that she applied with a brush under a microscope.
Finally, the missal was reassembled on a wooden sewing frame. A new binding was attached and covered with goatskin leather.
”This is one of the most challenging projects I’ve ever undertaken,” Quandt said.
Two tablets accompany the exhibit. On the first, museum-goers can watch the restoration project unfold from start to finish. On the second, visitors can flip through the digitized missal page by page. Those who look closely may spy a shadowy line running horizontally across the pages of goatskin parchment. It was made by hairs on the critter’s spine.
Because the restoration was so successful, the missal will be newly accessible even after the exhibit closes in a way that it hasn’t been in several years. Herbert will once again be able to show the 12th-century volume to pilgrims who have journeyed to see it. She will once again be able to open the book the exact page containing the exhortation to “go, sell whatever thou hast and give to the poor” that is believed to have galvanized St. Francis.
Weekend Watch Newsletter
Plan your weekend with our picks for the best events, restaurant and movie reviews, TV shows and more. Delivered every Thursday.
”People always ask me, ‘Do you think he really touched it?’ ” Herbert said.
“I don’t know. But what I can say is that he was a real person. That church was a real church. It is entirely possible that he walked into the church of San Nicolo on that day and opened the book on the altar. There’s no reason to think he didn’t.
“And if he did, it is very likely that the book that St. Francis touched is this book.”