Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Rare Treat

The month of January is ordinarily a time for indoor rather than outdoor activities.  One such indoor excursion was a rare treat.  My friend, Sara (aka Sissy) G, invited me to a private tour of the Crusader Bible exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art on the UT campus.  The exhibit, which runs through April 3, features over forty unbound folios of the Bible, along with European arms and armor and pages from Persian manuscripts.

The Crusader Bible is not a Bible in the traditional sense; it is a collection of illustrations of Old Testament scenes in medieval settings.  You can tell the good guys from the bad in the illustrations; the good guys look like Crusaders, complete with helmets and chain mail!  There are also ample examples of beheadings, disembowelments and the like.  (Who said the Old Testament was boring!)

Thought to have been commissioned by King Louis IX and created in Paris around 1240, the illustrations were produced by several artists.  The volume originally had no text, but over the years inscriptions were added in the margins in Latin, Persian, and Judeo-Persian.  The added text tells the Bible stories associated with the illustrations, but details of the stories don’t always agree.  I guess it’s a matter of interpretation.

No flash photography is permitted in the gallery, but I was able to get some shots with my small Olympus camera.  The folios are all in plexiglass cases, so some are a little fuzzy, but you can follow the stories.  The illustrations on the right-hand panels below depict David displaying the severed head of the giant, Goliath, then being recognized and rewarded by King Saul.

I was especially pleased to see that one of the illustrations depicts my namesake, Michal, the first wife of King David.  If you’re familiar with the account of her life, which begins in I Samuel, David won her hand in marriage by presenting her father, King Saul, with the brideprice he required, the foreskins of 100 Philistine warriors.  Saul was jealous and fearful of David, however, and tried on a number of occasions to have him killed.  In the illustration  below, Michal is shown deceiving Saul’s men (who have come to kill David) by telling them that David is sick in bed. In the same illustration, David is shown crawling through a window and escaping.

Another plate features David cutting off a piece of King Saul’s robe as the King relieves himself in a cave. As mentioned above, an entire story may be shown in one panel.  In this instance, after David cut off the corner of King Saul's robe, he waved it from a hilltop so the king would know David could have killed him in the cave, but instead spared his life.

The folios are rich with color, texture and action.  Enlarge the illustrations and look closely to see the battle scenes, complete with blood and severed heads, as well as medieval weapons of war in use at the time the Crusader Bible was created.  

Each plate tells one or more stories, and you may be able to identify some of them even without the accompanying text.  For example, the story of Ruth and Boaz is told in the right-hand panels of the folio above.  The left-hand panels depict on the top a fierce battle and on the bottom the sacrifice of lambs.    

It’s a fascinating exhibit, full of action and history.  And I've only touched on the illustrations themselves.  There is also the drama that surrounds the Crusader Bible itself.  It traveled 
from Paris through Italy, Poland, Persia and Egypt to England.  Then, in 1916, Belle da Costa Greene, librarian for J.P. Morgan, Jr., of New York City, purchased it for Mr. Morgan and it became the first manuscript in his collection.

Thanks to Sissy for including me in the indoor adventure.  Be sure to visit the Blanton and treat yourself to the exhibit. 

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