Part II: Parchment, Paper, Palm: Joint CMA & CWRU Program Explores the CMA’s Global Medieval Manuscripts
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.
“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 second 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. This group 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. Read the first group here.
Materiality of Color
By Russell David Green
In three medieval manuscripts the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection, surface and color merge to create the sacred page. These objects — a bifolium excised from a 9th-century Carolingian gradual, a 12th-century handscroll containing the Lotus Sutra, and a sheet from the 15th-century Devasano Pado Kalpa-sutra — all participate in a widespread tradition of adorning the dyed or painted folio with glimmering metallic text. The universal appeal of gleaming script contrasted against a dark-toned ground is global in scope; however, this essay examines what makes various materials precious and costly in different geographical areas and explores the cultural associations of the resultant colors. When considered together as a group, these distinct manuscripts from the CMA’s collection reveal the ways in which different cultures utilized color to transform the material of the page, thereby imbuing it with divine meaning, all the while emphasizing its lavish nature.
Materiality of Books
By Julia LaPlaca
When a premodern manuscript depicted an image of itself, it communicated the status and meaning its makers intended. In the CMA collection, three manuscript illuminations — one Islamic, one Christian, and one Buddhist — contain images of the very book or text in which they appear. Through such visual self-referentiality, each manuscript boldly asserts its own importance based on a relationship between the text and its patron, reader, or personification.
Materiality of Ritual
By Gilbert Jones
From the quotidian to the extraordinary, rituals frame the lives of religious observers. Rituals are ceremonial practices that are codified and repeated. Sacred manuscripts play a critical role as ritual objects for almost every religion around the globe, enabling the correct and efficacious performance of religious devotion. But these roles can be strikingly different. Each of the books examined here has a unique function within its ritual context: a Prajnaparamita, an Avatamsaka- sutra, and the Gotha Missal, all three in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection.
Materiality of Destruction
By Benjamin Levy
In his diary entry for January 3, 1854, the 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin wrote, “Cut missal up in evening — hard work.” Ruskin saw such barbaric dismemberment of a medieval liturgical manuscript as a pedagogical necessity. He wrote, “There are literally thousands of manuscripts in the libraries of England . . . of which a few leaves, dispersed among parish schools, would do more to educate the children of the poor than all the catechisms that ever tortured them.” Decades later, Cleveland Institute of Art faculty member Otto Ege professed a similar desire: “Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments.” Ege proudly proclaimed himself to be a biblioclast, or a “book-breaker.” But not everyone’s motives were quite so altruistic. Ruskin and Ege’s misguided educational motives are very unlike those of the profit-driven actions of the French dealer Georges Demotte in the 1920s and 1930s. Along with controversies around the authenticity of works he sold to museums, he dismantled manuscripts, such as the Great Mongol Shahnama, in order to reap financial gains selling images individually.