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

Color of the Middle Ages

Color of the Middle Ages   
Following the smashing success of Forgeries and Their Detection, Nordenfalk curated Color of the Middle Ages in the spring semester of 1976 with the help of the UAG curator Leslie Morrisey, and his graduate students from a seminar on medieval book illumination held the previous year. The show opened on March 12th in the UAG and ran until April 18th 1976. Following the Pitt showing, it traveled to Harvard University, Johns Hopkins, and SUNY Binghamton. Drawing from the collection of medieval manuscript facsimiles held at the Frick Fine Arts Library, along with supplementary facsimile leaves from book publishers, Nordenfalk composed an encyclopedic exhibition that surveyed the medieval centuries of European book illumination. Through the use of facsimile, he was able to stage an exhibition that would have been otherwise impossible to conduct using real manuscripts, primarily due to loan difficulties. Yet, with his assemblage of high quality reproductions, he could present the great anonymous masters of the Hiberno-Saxon Gospel books and the Carolingian psalters in dialogue with the Limbourg brothers, Jean Fouquet, and Alexander Bening. 

With Nordenfalk’s vast network of friends in the publishing world, he was able to rouse the interest of two of the leading manuscript facsimile producers at the time: George Braziller in New York and Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt (ADEVA) in Graz, Austria. Their fascination with the concept of the exhibition prompted them to loan many single plates of the finest facsimile reproductions. These companies -- along with other loans from around thirty other publishing houses -- helped supplement many of the missing holes in the Frick Fine Arts Library facsimile collection. According to Dr. Fil Hearn the Department Chair at the time, “the exhibition was a spectacular display, not only of facsimiles from the collection of the Frick Fine Arts Library, but also of loose color plates that had not yet been bound in volumes, direct from the publishers of facsimiles…[Nordenfalk] could obtain them because he had a sort of editorial relationship with those publishing houses and he called in the favors he had done them in spades.”

Nordenfalk’s Curatorial Approach: 
The March 1st Pitt press release for the exhibition states that “a new technique will be used to display the open books by mounting them, along with additional miniature reproductions, on panels suspended from the gallery walls...this will give the exhibition a picture book effect,” according to Nordenfalk. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article published on March 19, 1976 (shortly after the opening) elaborates further on this new curatorial technique stating,“separate pages exhibited against black panels and books in hanging cases illustrate the range of styles employed to record Biblical and secular subjects.” It appears as though Nordenfalk wanted the visitor to be able to view the illuminations as one would view paintings -- hanging on the wall as opposed to through the deceptive vitrines tables with book cradles. 

The final floor plan and exhibition catalogue is still preserved in the ULS archives, and it shows the chronological and encyclopedic approach Nordenfalk implemented when selecting the object positions. The exhibition begins in the front gallery with Hiberno-Saxon Art (which he brackets a the 7th - 8th centuries) featuring the Book of Durrow, the Book of Lindisfarne, and the Book of Kells in immediate succession.  The front gallery is also co-inhabited by Nordenfalk’s Carolingian Art section (9th century), which features such highlights as the Lorsch Gospels from the Court School of Aachen and the Utrecht Psalter from Rheims. In the catalogue, Nordenfalk argues that illumination from this period was influenced by Hiberno-Saxon art featured in the previous section, but it “proved capable of creating a style of its own,” from which the succeeding development of Western art evolved. 

Moving to the hallway and side gallery of the UAG, Nordenfalk featured his ambiguously named Beneventan and Mozarabic Art (10th - 11th centuries) section, which examined manuscripts from medieval Spain and Southern Italy. Although nothing is explicitly mentioned, this display was undoubtedly influenced by Nordenfalk’s close friend and colleague Dr. John Williams, an expert in art from medieval Spain. This grouping of objects revolved around variants in handwriting and ornament due to “foreign influences” from Byzantine and Islamic cultures. Marching down the wall of the side gallery, Nordenfalk exhibited his (seemly) favorite form of medieval illumination: Ottonian Art. In the catalogue, he regards the Reichenau and Echternach schools as the main centers of production, highlighting such books as Gospels of Otto III from Reichenau and his very own facsimile on the Goslar Gospels of King Henry III from Echternach. In a corner of the side gallery, Nordenfalk returned to the British Isles to show Late Anglo-Saxon (10th -11th centuries) manuscripts, which he claims, “followed the lead of the school of Rheims.” 

On the furthest wall of the side gallery, Nordenfalk showcased Romanesque illumination from the twelfth century, which he claims was the unifying style of all the variant artistic traditions in the Western world. While still drawing from Byzantine style, Romanesque art was the “official artistic language” of the Church under the reformist Popes. Despite the majority of facsimiles featured being religious, this section included the Liber Floridus, which was one of the first encyclopedias of the High Middle Ages, and a German translation of The Song of Roland. Rounding out the side gallery, Nordenfalk groups illuminations in a so-called “transitional style” due to the transition between the earlier Romanesque and the later Gothic. Using such manuscripts as the Bamberg Psalter and an early 13th century copy of Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works, Nordenfalk argued that the steadily growing impact of Byzantine art on the West helped artists to “abandon their Romanesque armour” and develop a style which in “its closeness to nature and it’s human pathos was akin to Greek and Roman art in its classical perfection.”

Although some facsimiles designated as “Gothic Art” (13th - 14th centuries) in the catalogue were featured in the “Transitional Style” section of the show, Nordenfalk used the length of the hallway gallery to exhibit the finest works of “Gothic Art.” From the brilliant Morgan Picture Bible (aka pictures from the Crusader Bible) from George Braziller’s press to the Sarajevo Haggadah -- one of two Jewish books featured in the exhibition --, the display exposed the distinctive artistic developments of the Gothic period. According to the catalogue, key markers were, “the elegantly draped, elongated figures set on a narrow stage,” and “backgrounds of burnished gold or checkered ornaments.” Through a facsimile of The Hours of Jeanne D’Evreux from the Met Cloisters, Nordenfalk also highlighted the rise of the book of hours during the Gothic period, which was a prayer book for the laity that replaced the Psalter. 

A preface to the new “book of hours” format was important for the next section dubbed “the International Style” (c. 1400), which began in the rotunda gallery and featured mainly this form of manuscript. The massive rotunda only exhibited three books, all commissioned by Jean, Duke of Berry two of which completed by the Limbourg Brothers: the Grandes Heures du duc de Berry, the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, and the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. All of these facsimiles were the latest, high quality editions from George Braziller. Nordenfalk defined “International Style” as a period around the end of the fourteenth century where “art from the north and south of the Alps drew close,” and a great number of gifted illuminators were receiving important commissions from French and Italian courts. Stylistic markers from this period focused on the art of “great refinement” along with “an open eye for the wonder of nature.”

Nordenfalk ended his show in the back gallery with “The New Realism” section in the 15th - 16th centuries, which he defined by an emphasis for natural realism and the study of light and its effect on color and space. More so than any section previously, Nordenfalk called to attention the individual skill of artists like the Master of Mary of Burgundy, Alexander Bening and his son Simon, Jean Fouquet of Tours and the Master of King René, many of whom were in dialogue with the prominent panel painters at the time. The “New Realism” section pointed primarily to the Netherlands and France as the main locations of artistic production, highlighting masterpieces from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves to The Breviarium Grimani on which Simon Bening worked. 

Assessment of the Show: 
Looking back on this show forty-three years later, it is easy to see the inherent biases that influenced Nordenfalk’s curatorial practice. Covering over seven hundred years of book illumination, Nordenfalk focused almost exclusively on France, Germany, Northern Italy, and the British Isles as the main areas of artistic ingenuity, while occasionally giving nods to Byzantium, Spain, and Italy as sources of influence. Throughout the whole show, he features only two Jewish books -- specifically Sephardic Haggadahs -- and only mentions the enormous Islamic world once in his entire catalogue. While the Frick Fine Arts collection of facsimiles was (and still is) very focused on the European West, Nordenfalk’s connection with book publishers gave him free range to include whatever manuscript facsimiles were currently being published, yet he still insisted on his Western focus. As someone who comes from a “periphery” nation in terms of artistic production (Sweden), it is surprising to see such a narrow view of illumination in the Middle Ages. The again, Nordenfalk came from a milieu of art historians who, in the wake of Erwin Panofsky, fixate on the superiority of Franco-Germanic and Hiberno-Saxon art. 

Nevertheless, it is important to reflect on this period of scholarship to see how far medieval art history has progressed since this point. If this exhibition were to be staged next year, for instance, how might it be curated to reflect what we now know about multiculturalism and aesthetic exchange in the medieval Mediterranean? While the Frick Fine Arts Library still holds a Eurocentric Christian centered collection of facsimiles, how could the library be improved by adding medieval manuscript facsimiles of Islamic, Byzantine, and Jewish origins? If facsimiles are truly pedagogical tools and not just collector’s items, it is important that our facsimile collection at Pitt allows students to study all the colors of the Middle Ages and not simply the Eurocentric art history canon. 

Physical facsimiles are still vital to the study of medieval illumination and writing, not only for experienced scholars, but also for students who are just beginning to dip their toes into the field. Without the collection at the Frick Fine Arts Library, my peers and I would be forced to view manuscripts through the lens of our computer screens, never understanding the physical scope of medieval books. While facsimiles can be misleading, they are irreplaceable as pedagogical tools. To return to Walter Benjamin’s line of thinking, yes, an aura is lost in the reproduction, but no, that is not worth eradicating all reproductions all together. During his time at Pitt, Nordenfalk undoubtedly saw the potential for facsimiles to make medieval illuminations accessible to the Pitt public, many of whom never saw an original manuscript before (let alone the Book of Kells). Although there may have been shortcomings to the way that the exhibition was presented, Color in the Middle Ages was a noble effort that is worth replicating in the UAG in the years to come. 


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