Cultures

Review by Pamela A. Lewis

As so few of them have survived, treasure bindings — book covers encrusted with gold and silver, and studded with precious gems — were a luxury in the Middle Ages. We can be grateful to the foresight (and monetary might) of John Pierpont Morgan for collecting some of the finest examples of these medieval masterpieces, now part of the Morgan Library’s extraordinary collection.

Magnificent Gems
Medieval Treasure Bindings
The Morgan Library & Museum
Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery
225 Madison Ave. at 36th St.
New York City
Through January 7

Beautifully displayed in the library’s intimate Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, this exhibition presents these works in context for the first time. It celebrates this collection of jeweled bindings, which not only venerated the sacred texts they contained and embellished the liturgy, but also stood as valued assets in their own right, reflecting the wealth and status of the patrons who commissioned them.

Morgan, who in 1902 donated the renowned Star Sapphire of India to the American Museum of Natural History (which he cofounded in 1869), was attracted to the beauty of gems. Despite his generosity to other museums, however, when gems were used in treasure bindings Morgan kept these objects for himself, which accounts for the abundance of the exhibition’s bindings that incorporate star sapphires, diamonds, emeralds, pearls, and garnets.

Entering the gallery, visitors come face-to-cover with the breathtaking Lindau Gospels, Morgan’s first treasure binding. Considered the finest surviving Carolingian example, the Lindau front cover presents a gold repoussé crucifixion surrounded by ten mourning figures, as well as the Virgin, John, the Magdalene, and Mary Cleopas. Architectural features allude to the Heavenly Jerusalem; raised stones in the borders and tiny bejeweled footstools protect the repoussé work when opened.

The highly decorative and equally stunning rear cover presents a cross, the arms of which broaden at the ends, and on which medallions of the four evangelists were added in the late 16th century. Purchased by the financier in 1901, distinguishing it as the oldest jeweled binding in the Morgan, it is thought to have been made around 875 in the court workshop of Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne, and perhaps at the Royal Abbey of St. Denis, where Charles was secular abbot from 867 to his death in 877.

Bindings specially made for royal patrons are also represented, notably a fine example that was done for Judith, Countess of Flanders. In addition to making donations to several religious establishments, Judith commissioned several Gospel Books, which she took with her into exile in England. One of the two bindings, possibly Germanic work done around 1060, sets cast figures representing Christ in Majesty, flanked by seraphim, and the crucifixion, including a mourning Virgin and John, against a delicate filigree background; a translucent green enamel title, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is above the cross.

The inclusion of a book box lid possibly made under the direction of Guglielmo Libri (1803-69), a notorious manuscript thief, lends a touch of scandal to the collection. In a style of almost modern simplicity, the object depicts a 13th-century Limoges style champlevé enamel of Christ in Majesty (the only original part of this work) with symbols of the four evangelists in its corners (most likely 19th-century copies). Modern crystal cabochons that inset the framing silver-gilt metal plate almost illuminate this otherwise austere object. Libri sold this pastiche of varied elements to Sotheby’s in London in 1862, and the binding helped to raise the selling price for the Gospel fragments of Luke and John that it contained.

The dazzling jeweled binding of the Berthold Sacramentary attests to Weingarten Abbey’s flowering under Abbot Berthold (r. 1200-32), who commissioned the Sacramentary between 1215 and 1217. It is the most luxurious manuscript of his time. Reflecting her cult at Weingarten, the Sacramentary presents the Virgin and Child at its center, surrounded by 12 figures identified by inscriptions. In addition to the four evangelists in the corners, the virtues Virginity and Humility, SS. Oswald and Martin (the abbey’s patrons), and Abbot Berthold and St. Nicholas, are also represented on the binding cover. The abbey dissolved in 1802, its treasures were dispersed, and the Sacramentary became a Morgan treasure in 1926.

Similar to what occasionally happened with medieval reliquaries, treasure bindings were often modified and added to across the centuries. Such is the case of a Gospel Book, in Latin, from Germany created around 1030. The cover’s central section showing the crucifixion (in ivory, possibly part of the original binding) is unusual in that Mary holds a book, and John the Beloved Disciple is shown writing. The four evangelists in the corners, late-12th-century Rhenish work, are carved from walrus tusk. Diamond-shaped bloodstones — allusions to the blood of Christ — seem deliberately placed on the silver-gilt cover on axes with the crucifixion, and most likely date from later centuries. The patchwork aspect to this striking object does not diminish its solemn power, enhanced by a 15th-century painted head of Christ wearing the crown of thorns, located behind a large crystal at the binding cover’s bottom.

The jeweled bindings are unquestionably the stars of the exhibition, but other objects within the collection also vie for visitors’ attention. An enormous choir book leaf made in Rome around 1519 for Pope Leo X (r. 1513-21) is one of the most impressive illuminated manuscripts of the 15th and 16th centuries. A scene depicting the adoration of the magi is bordered by the arms, mottoes, and devices of the pope. Although unverified, it is believed that the leaf was removed from a gradual in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

The unknown artist of this work was apparently acquainted with the trend of using “imagined” (two-dimensional) representations of gems as a decorative element, such as in the historiated initial E (of Ecce: Behold) that introduces the music for the Feast of the Adoration of the Magi (Jan. 6). The artist also knew Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Holy Family, given the unusual posture of Jesus in this work. The leaf’s imposing size and nearly pristine condition make it one of the collection’s outstanding objects.

Other “imagined” gem works are also featured on three of Girolamo da Cremona’s hand-painted Venetian books: Augustine’s City of God (1475), Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (1478), and Artistotle’s Opera (1483), all undisputed masterpieces of trompe l’oeil. And Simon Bening’s Da Costa Hours, opened to a page with its touching image of St. Luke, seated on the ox that is his symbol and writing his Gospel, and its facing page of trompe-l’oeil borders with realistic cut flowers that cast soft shadows, beckons our attention as much as its more sparkling neighbors.

At his death in 1913, Morgan’s fortune was estimated at “only” $80 million, prompting John D. Rockefeller to remark: “And to think, he wasn’t even a rich man.” If that is true, Magnificent Gems is absolute proof that even modest means can acquire glorious things.

Pamela A. Lewis writes for The Episcopal New Yorker and Episcopal Journal.

Related Posts