A New Year, A New Leaf: Turning the Page in CMA’s Galleries
By Amanda Mikolic, Curatorial Assistant
The CMA’s galleries are dynamic and always changing. Whether newly acquired works are placed on view or galleries are reinstalled, there’s always something new to see each time you visit the museum. This is also true of the bound volumes of manuscripts on view at the CMA. It’s part of Curatorial Assistant Amanda Mikolic’s job to turn the pages of these centuries-old medieval manuscripts — a task that can be equal parts stressful and rewarding. In the blog post below, Amanda shares her experience and knowledge about this delicate and necessary procedure.
Learn more about medieval manuscripts and the creatures within them this summer in the special exhibition Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders opening Sun, 7/7/2019 at the CMA.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has 242 manuscripts in its medieval collection ranging in date from AD 500 to 1625. Of these, 18 are complete bound volumes. Throughout the medieval galleries, some of these works can be found on display, but the vast majority remain in storage.
Manuscripts are light sensitive. The ink and pigments used to decorate the vellum or animal-skin leaves are subject to fading when overexposed to light. In an effort to preserve these magnificent objects for future visitors, the museum maintains a strict rotation cycle to avoid overexposing any one manuscript leaf.
For those single leaves that are on display, a new leaf will replace the previous leaf every eight months. For complete bound manuscripts, the page or folio is turned every four months. This constant rotation means that a repeat visitor gets a new experience with each visit and the ability to see a larger part of the collection.
Turning the folios of these magnificent books is an incredibly enjoyable experience and one of my favorite tasks here at the museum. However, it can also be a stressful event. For the handling of manuscripts, clean dry hands are preferred. Vellum is an incredibly durable medium. With the exception of flood, fire, and insects, vellum can remain remarkably well preserved even after hundreds of years. In fact, wearing gloves could actually do more harm than good to a manuscript, as the pages are more susceptible to tearing as a result of the loss of tactile function. When turning folios, it is important to turn them slowly and to flex the leaves as little as possible. It is also important to always be mindful of the stress on the binding. Although the majority of bound volumes in the collection were rebound in the 1800s and 1900s, some are original and quite fragile.
In choosing which folio to display, there are many things to consider. First and foremost is the exposure times for each folio. If something has been out in the last five years, it is not allowed by conservation standards to be exhibited again. We follow a guideline that states that a folio, once displayed, should rest for five years. Although this policy may sound extreme, with beautifully decorated manuscripts such as the Hours of Charles the Noble, King of Navarre, which contains hundreds of decorated folios, it is nearly impossible to run out of impressive pages to show.
Another consideration is the liturgical calendar. At the last page turn in September, I knew that the folios selected would be on display during the Christmas season. For that reason, I chose scenes showing the nativity or annunciation to the shepherds.
If a folio is to be shown over the Easter holiday, I may choose a scene of the crucifixion or entombment. In addition, I always check feast and saint’s days such as the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, which takes place in June. Besides the liturgical calendar, I also consider our present-day one; for instance last Halloween I chose a folio with a decoration of a black cat in the margin as well as a scene showing a devil fighting for the soul of the dead.
One of the museum’s most luxurious manuscripts on display is the Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Spain. Illuminated between 1500 and 1504, it is truly fit for a queen and can be seen in gallery 110A.
Produced by artists active in Ghent and Bruges, this manuscript represents the culmination of Flemish book painting. Every folio is exquisitely decorated. Filled with rich colors and illusionistic effects, the borders feature realistically painted flowers, birds, and insects.
The hours were an object of personal devotion, and the pages would have been turned by Queen Isabella herself as she recited her prayers throughout the day. Each new leaf, a feast for the eyes, would have presented a new experience. All the folios are available to view in digital version on our website. However, if you are looking for a more tactile experience, a complete facsimile of the manuscript is available at the museum’s Ingalls Library. Here, in the beautifully lit Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears Reading Room, you can experience the joy of turning each page and seeing what treasures lay inside.
Note: Complete bound manuscripts are located in galleries 105, 109, 110A, and 113.