Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts from Boston Collections


CHURCH & CLOISTER (Houghton Library: Sept. 12 – Dec. 10, 2016)
PLEASURE & PIETY (McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College: Sept. 12 – Dec. 11, 2016)
ITALIAN RENAISSANCE BOOKS (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Sept. 22, 2016 – Jan. 16, 2017)

An international conference linked to the exhibition with one day at each of the three venues will take place on Nov. 3–5, 2016.

The collections in the Boston area constitute one of the most important ensembles of illuminated manuscript material anywhere in North America, yet they remain, in large measure, virtually unknown to scholars and the wider  public alike. Conceived by Jeffrey F. Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture at Harvard, in 2000, his first year at the university, the exhibition could not have been prepared and organized without the collaboration of a team of local manuscript experts with whom he searched the stacks and stores of libraries and museums on both sides of the Charles River for buried treasures of illumination.

Beyond Words will be the first exhibition to showcase highlights of medieval and Renaissance illumination in the Boston area. It follows in the footsteps of other exhibitions which have vaunted the holdings of public collections in American and British cities, such as Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illumination from Philadelphia Collections (2001-2002)and Cambridge Illuminations (2005). Beyond Words, however, is a far more ambitious collaborative metropolitan project, in terms of the size of its curatorial team, number of exhibits and lending institutions, and multi-venue display:

The exhibition will be curated by a team of five manuscripts scholars with complementary expertise in the holdings and history of collections of manuscripts and early printed books in the Boston area: in addition to Jeffrey F. Hamburger, his Harvard colleague Dr. William P. Stoneman, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts of the University’s Houghton Library, as well as Nancy Netzer, Professor of Art History and Director of the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College; Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis, Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America and co-author of the Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, (2015), an update to Seymour De Ricci’s Census; and Dr. Anne-Marie Eze, formerly Associate Curator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the first scholar to comprehensively study the museum’s rare books collection since the 1930s.

260 outstanding manuscripts and printed books dating from the ninth to seventeenth centuries have been carefully selected from Boston-area repositories. These include numerous masterpieces by well-known artists, such as Lippo Vanni, Benedetto Bordon, Jean Poyer, Jean Bourdichon, Simon Bening, and the Boucicaut and Rohan masters, as well as many others no less notable for being anonymous. Identifiable patrons include such renowned figures as Charles V of France, Jean, duc de Berry, Pope Sixtus IV, Borso d’Este, and Isabella d’Este among many others. These precious volumes will be loaned by eighteen local institutions are: The Armenian Museum and Library of America; The Boston Athenaeum; Burns Library, Boston College; School of Theology Library, Boston College; Boston University; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Boston Public Library, Brandeis University, Harvard University Law School; the Countway Library, Harvard Medical School; the Houghton Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Harvard University; the Harvard Divinity School—Andover-Harvard Theological Library of the Harvard University Divinity School; the Baker Library, Harvard Business School; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Northeastern University; Tufts University, and Wellesley College.  As well as lending manuscripts, these institutions are also contributing the time and expertise of their in-house conservators and photographers, whose  are working hard to prepare for display and digitize the manuscripts, many of which have never been exhibited to the public or previously reproduced.

Beyond Words will be exhibited at three venues on both sides of the Charles River: Harvard University’s Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art, where it will be the inaugural exhibition in the museum’s new building, a renovation of the  neo-Renaissance palazzo built as a residence for Boston’s archbishop by the architectural firm Maginnis and Walsh in 1927, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Each venue will highlight one of the three principal contexts for the production of books in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and related developments in design, script and decoration. The volumes will be presented to the public as the idealized libraries of three readers—the monk at the Houghton, lay person at Boston College and humanist prince at the Gardner Museum—to vividly bring to life books produced for the communal use of religious institutions; collections that served the educational, professional, and spiritual needs of individuals; and the magnificent libraries that proclaimed the power and cultivation of Renaissance rulers.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a single scholarly catalogue with essays and entries written by an international cohort of around eighty-five American and European scholars, including François Avril, Susan L’Engle, James Marrow, Scot Mckendrick, Lillian Armstrong, Federica Toniolo and Maria Thiesen. It will be edited by Beyond Words’s curatorial team and published by Boston College.

The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as by private donors.

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