Color of the Middle Ages Reimagined : A Retrospective of Dr. Carl Nordenfalk and his 1976 Exhibition of Medieval Manuscript Facsimiles

Carl Nordenfalk

Dr. Carl Adam Johan Nordenfalk:

Born in 1907 in Stockholm, Sweden, Carl Nordenfalk spent his early academic years in the wake of World War I. In the late 1920s, he began studying art history at the University of Uppsala -- a historic institution with a robust collection of manuscripts and the home of the famous, deep purple Codex Argenteus (translated as silver book). His academic beginnings not only provided gave Carl hands-on experience with original manuscripts, but the time period also allowed scholars to begin publishing hundreds of reproduced illustrations in their scholarly texts in the form of loose collotype plates. Nordenfalk was so fond of this pedagogical intervention that he used this method himself when he published his dissertation on Canon tables in Late Antique manuscripts.

Prior to completing his Ph.D from the University of Stockholm, Nordenfalk spent a winter researching at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (prior to WWII). Due to the Library’s strict limits prohibiting scholars viewing multiple manuscripts at one time, Nordenfalk formed a “secret brotherhood” with other art historians to share their loans. Among those in this “secret brotherhood” was none other than Meyer Schapiro, who later became a pioneering art historian at Columbia University.

Instead of entering academia, Nordenfalk began his career in the museum world, serving as Director of Outgoing Activities at the Swedish Nationalmuseum, and after a short time, he was promoted to Chief Curator of the Department of Sculpture and Paintings. While organizing exhibitions, conducting studies on works by Van Dyck, Cezanne, Titian, Watteau, Gauguin, Goya, and Gainsborough, and writing a book on Van Gogh (1953), Nordenfalk produced a steady flow of publications on medieval illumination. Following WWII, he was invited by Erwin Panofsky to study at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton for the 1949/50 academic year. Nordenfalk writes that he was amazed by the “unmatched” photographic documentation of Byzantine miniatures ruled over by Kurt Weitzmann and the the Index of Christian Iconography (now called the Index of Medieval Art). Upon his return to Sweden, he strung together loans to create an exhibition called Golden Books: Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts in Danish and Swedish Ownership (1952), which was accomplished despite the dearth of manuscripts in the Nationalmuseum collection.

A few years later, Nordenfalk co-authored a book with André Grabar in 1957 on early medieval painting, which detailed the progression of book illumination from late Roman manuscripts like the Vergilius Vaticanus (early fifth century) to the the Uta Codex and Golden Gospels of Echternach in the Ottonian period of the mid-eleventh century. This text is accompanied by high quality, color facsimile plates of both manuscript details and full page reproductions -- an exceedingly costly expenditure at the time.

From 1958 to 1968, Nordenfalk served as the Director of the Swedish Nationalmuseum, yet he could not escape the internal conflict of interest between his interest in manuscript studies and the administrative tasks he had to attend to as the head of a great museum. Fortunately, in 1968, Millard Meiss asked Carl to return for a second time to the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, where he would remain until 1970. During this time, Nordenfalk authored his first facsimile, the Codex Caesareus Upsaliensis: A facsimile edition of an Echternach gospel-book of the eleventh century, which was published in 1971 by Almqvist & Wiksell in Stockholm. After serving one year as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley as the Regents professor, he move to the University of Pittsburgh where he would hold the Andrew Mellon Professorship of Fine Arts from 1971-72. While simultaneously giving the Slade lectures at Cambridge, Nordenfalk was the Kress Professor in Residence at the National Gallery in Washington from 1972-1973. During his tenure, he would organize an exhibition called Medieval and Renaissance Miniatures from the National Gallery of Art (1975), which included 76 single leaves and cuttings from illuminated manuscripts in the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection. Carl returned to the University of Pittsburgh in the 1973-74 academic semester as the Mellon Professor, where he would remain until 1976.

Unlike the other academic institutions that Nordenfalk frequented, the University of Pittsburgh gave him the liberty to develop exhibitions on his own terms and tailor the shows to fit his pedagogical purposes and scholarly interests. Yet, compared to the collections he managed in previous years, the University Art Gallery was certainly the least impressive. Nevertheless, in the fall semester of 1975, Nordenfalk organized Forgeries and their Detection with the help of the Mellon Institute, which examined various types of forgeries -- copies, pastiches, and outright fakes in the manner of famous artists -- and the methods of modern science available for detecting these fraudulent works.

In Forgeries and their Detection, Nordenfalk took a critical look at mimicry and what it means to be a reproduced work of art. Only three years after the 1970 UNESCO Convention Resolution on combating illegal trade of cultural items went into effect, this timely exhibition was intended to inform the public on the various types of forgeries -- from deliberately fabricated educational facsimiles to pastiche works intended to dupe modern collectors. With the help of UAG curator Leslie D. Morrisey, Nordenfalk secured loans of “fraudulent” works from eighteen individuals and institutions including the Walters Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the National Gallery of Art, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, Princeton University Art Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With the help of the Mellon Institute, the Brookhaven National Research Laboratory, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Research Laboratory, and Fisher Scientific, Nordenfalk exposed the various new scientific apparatuses used to discover the true nature of objects in question.

While this blockbuster exhibition was underfoot Nordenfalk was (coincidentally) in the process of publishing his second manuscript facsimile on the Vergilius Augusteus, which included high quality reproductions in a deliberately weathered booklet to mimic the original. While the issues surrounding facsimile, forgery, and mechanical reproduction were at the forefront of Nordenfalk’s mind throughout his career, it was not until his time at Pitt that he was able to explore these topics through exhibition spaces.

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