Parchment, Paper, Palm: Joint CMA & CWRU Program Explores the CMA’s Global Medieval Manuscripts

Cleveland Museum of Art
CMA Thinker
Published in
6 min readNov 8, 2019
Students in the Joint Program in Art History at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. Image courtesy Elina Gertsman.

The Joint Program in Art History at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University brings together students, professors, curators, and museum educators to work closely with one of the country’s finest encyclopedic collections of art. The proximity of the museum and the university allows classes to be held in the museum, and support from the Mellon Foundation provides funds for curatorial teaching stipends and course development, as well as student fellowships and other resources. Last semester, Sonya Rhie Mace, George P. Bickford Curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art and interim curator of Islamic art, teamed with Elina Gertsman, Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan Professor in Catholic Studies II and Professor of Art History, to lead a graduate seminar on premodern manuscripts from Europe and Asia, with a special focus on works in the museum’s collection.

Students in the Joint Program in Art History at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. Image courtesy Elina Gertsman.

“Parchment, Paper, Palm: Global Medieval Manuscripts” introduced students to arts of the book from a wide range of religious traditions: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jain, and Jewish. Every class involved close looking and analysis of original manuscripts and facsimiles from the CMA’s Ingalls Library, so that students could experience the materiality of the works meant for intimate — and often devotional — viewing. The Joint Program provides art history students with the invaluable experience of studying original works of art, and curators benefit from new perspectives on the collection that inform the interpretation of objects for the museum’s wide-ranging audiences.

In this blog, the first in a two-part series, The Thinker features essays by the students in Gertsman’s and Mace’s course, in which they share insights drawn from their research. The first group, with excerpts below, comprises essays that examine how premodern artists from different religious and geographic contexts conceptualized themes shared across cultures: anxieties about women; miraculous origins of a god born to a human mother; eroticism as an expression of the ecstatic union with the divine; relationships between emotions and cycles of time; and visually idiomatic uses of color. The second group, to be posted on November 15, includes essays that focus on the material and social aspects of illuminated books — recipes and meanings of specific pigments, ritual use of codices as tangible objects, self-referential depictions of books within books, and finally, the destruction of manuscripts — seen similarly through a cross-cultural lens.

See excerpts from the student essays below, and click the title to read the complete essay.

The Birth of Krishna, from a Sursagar of Surdas, c. 1700. Northwestern India, Rajasthan, Mewar. Gum tempera and gold on paper; image: 33.6 x 22.2 cm (13 1/4 x 8 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edwin R. and Harriet Pelton Perkins Memorial Fund 1984.65

Conceptualizing Divine Obstetrics
By Sam Truman

In religions centered on a figure that is both human and divine, that figure’s conception and birth is often surrounded by miraculous or supernatural events. Three manuscripts in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art — a Jain Kalpa-sutra, a Christian book of hours, and a Hindu Sursagar — narrate three stories that grapple with the theological problematics of a divine figure born into an earthly life. In each case, it is the mother who provides the necessary human element that makes this moment of incarnation possible.

Leaf from Jehan de Courc’s Chronique Universelle: King Priam Meets Helen and Paris outside the Gates of Troy, c. 1470. Northeastern France. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1945.16

Conceptualizing Female Guile
By Mia Hafer

Medieval women around the world were expected to remain in designated social places in society, whether that be the harem, the home, or the convent. Despite this reality, manuscripts throughout Europe and Asia reveal the fear that women would depart from these roles, disrupting the social order with their guile and feminine wiles. An examination of the illustrations of Adam and Eve from a German Biblia Pauperum, King Priam Meeting Helen and Paris Outside the Gates of Troy from the French Chronique Universelle, and the Fourth Night from the Indian Tuti-nama, all at the CMA, demonstrates how such tales were adopted and adapted from culture to culture, and given new meanings. Whether it is a Jewish or ancient Greco-Roman story reinterpreted by Christians, or a popular Indian secular fable retold for the Mughal court, each spoke to the male desire to maintain control over women.

Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Spain: Fol. 4v, March and Fol. 5r, April — Squire and Damsel, c. 1500. Master of the First Prayerbook of Maximillian (Flemish, c. 1444–1519), and Associates. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; codex: 22.5 x 15.2 cm (8 7/8 x 6 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1963.256.4.b

Conceptualizing Cycles of Time
By Alexandra Kaczenski

For millennia, constructions of time in premodern societies followed the cycles of the planets and stars. Days were organized around the rising and setting of the sun. Seasons had a great effect on lived experience. Three objects in the CMA’s collection reveal the potent links between units of cyclical time and human emotion or behavior across cultures: a page from a Persian lyric poem (CMA 2006.146.a), several folios from a Flemish book of hours (CMA 1963.256.4.b-5.a), and a northwest Indian Ragamala painting from courtly Rajasthan (CMA 2018.156). All of these objects were commissioned for an elite lay audience, and all engage with religious and moral themes. Their luscious illuminations, keyed to a precise temporal moment, delighted the senses, evoking a specific atmosphere, feeling, or sound. In order to characterize such a moment, all three bring together astrological concepts, color or numerical symbolism, and allegory.

Yusuf and Zulaykha, from the “Five Treasures” (Panj Ganj) of Jami, 1520–1607. India, Mughal patronage in Deccan style. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; page: 30.2 x 18.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, 2013.315.

Conceptualizing Erotic Mysticism
By Reed O’Mara

While we often read about bridal mysticism in the context of the biblical Song of Songs — an erotic story reconceived by medieval commentators in terms of the soul’s relationship with Christ — Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu iterations of this union are just as striking. Late medieval and early modern practitioners of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all created illustrated manuscripts featuring elements of erotic mysticism. Mysticism is religious devotion that focuses on the sublimation of the self for the purposes of achieving spiritual unity with a deity; erotic mysticism seeks this unity through human sexuality. What would it feel like to be close to the divine? Several paintings in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection visualize this question, including the Islamic Panj Ganj, which features the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha; the Hindu Bhagavata Purana, which depicts the trysts of Krishna; and a Buddhist drawing of the Tantric enlightened beings Hevajra and Nairatmya. The Panj Ganj shows the soul’s torturous journey to union with God; the Bhagavata Purana reveals the consummation of such love in ecstasy; and the drawing of Hevajra and Nairatmya depicts mystical love that exists beyond the human dimension.

Conceptualizing Blue Skin
By Angelica Verduci

We are accustomed to seeing the color blue as having positive connotations in medieval art. Blue pigment was extensively utilized in European Western manuscripts in devotional images that featured the Virgin Mary, such as this illumination from the Hours of Charles the Noble (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Hours of Charles the Noble, King of Navarre (1361–1425), folio 95v, text, c. 1405. Master of the Brussels Initials and Associates, France, Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; codex: 20.3 x 15.7 x 7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund, 1964.40.95.b.

Here, blue connotes a heavenly realm: it is applied to the garment of the Virgin as well as to the celestial vault studded with stars — the awe-inspiring setting for the Queen of Heaven. Blue is also the color of the cosmic Buddha Akshobyha, who dispels anger and presides over the East, the auspicious direction of the rising sun (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines: Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita: top cover, 1119. India, Bihar, Vikramashila Monastery. Palm-leaf pages, wooden covers, ink and color on palm leaves; 6.5 x 57 x 1.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1938.301.1.

At times, however, blue was used to classify particular categories of undesirables: heretics, monsters, foreigners, and enemies — those who have mistaken perceptions or antithetical views according to the image makers. Blue could likewise hint at the corruption of human perception, even our own.

This blog post is the first of a two-part series. Check back on November 15 to read the second group of essays that focus on the material and social aspects of illuminated books — recipes and meanings of specific pigments, ritual use of codices as tangible objects, self-referential depictions of books within books, and finally, the destruction of manuscripts — seen similarly through a cross-cultural lens.

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