Books are so common now that we think little about them. They're all around us every day, so the idea of a book has little if any mystique and power. But it was not always so. Before the invention of printing, books were made by hand; there were few of them around, and relatively few people knew how to read. So to have and use a book was a sign of learning, status, position. There was a time when people were proud to be seen with a book.
That's what "The Book Within the Book: Images of Books and Readers in Manuscripts," the Walters Art Gallery's latest manuscript show, is all about. It shows us how the written word was shown in the written word.
It's a good idea for a show, and curatorial assistant Diane Booten, who put it together, has come up with some well-selected examples. In the section "Liturgy and Devotion," there are pictures of monks singing from a choir book; a woman at her prayers in imitation of the Virgin Mary, also shown at her prayers; and a funeral service, at which we are shown monks using two books, one perhaps a choir book and the other a missal.
But the most intriguing example from this section is a missal illustrated with a picture of a priest at a service reading from a missal. You realize that the priest who used this missal in a service saw this picture of somebody doing exactly the same thing, and there's an almost spooky sense of being taken back in time to when this book, which we're looking at in a museum case, was actually in use in 15th-century Netherlands.
The message of these pictures of religious books in religious books is clearly that the religious part of life was highly important; most people probably saw books used in religious contexts more than in any other context, reinforcing the image of the church as the fount of knowledge and truth.
The section "Empowered by the Word" refers to both symbolic power and very real temporal power. In an illustration of "The Temptation of St. Anthony," the saint holds a book from which he takes the spiritual strength to ward off the devils flying about him and tempting him with evil.
Another book is open to a picture of Paolo Contarini receiving the book that details his powers as governor of Crete. The book he's shown receiving is the actual book we're looking at, given to him by ducal commission on April 15, 1575.
The show's explanatory labels are fine, as is usual with these manuscript exhibits, but such labels always carry a built-in risk: that viewers will read them and merely glance at the works of art for confirmation of what they say. Some of these illuminations are extremely beautiful and reward extended study.
Notice, for example, in the illustration of "St. John Writing," from a French, late-15th-century manuscript, the magnificent colors of the light and dark green checkerboard floor, of the blue and gold curtain behind the saint, and of his brilliant red robes and hat.
As usual in these exhibits, there's a lot to look at.
ART BY THE BOOK
What: "The Book Within the Book: Images of Books and Readers in Manuscripts"
Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 13
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and those 18 and under
Call: (410) 547-9000