Marking Time

The Morgan Library and Museum


By Pamela A. Lewis

With our clocks, watches, and cellphones, we have many ways to help us to tell what time it is. But the Morgan Library’s current exhibition explores how in the Middle Ages the concept of time, as well as telling time, were approached in different ways and with significantly different tools. Drawing upon the Morgan’s rich collection of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, ranging in date from the 11th to the 16th centuries, and representing all the major countries of Europe, Now and Forever offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into how people told time in the Middle Ages and what they thought about it.

The medieval calendar told time in two parallel ways, the first being the ancient Roman calendar that Julius Caesar had reformed in 45 B.C. This quirky system, which used three fixed points of Kalends, Nones, and Ides, plus the enumerated days leading to them, was employed throughout the entire Middle Ages. The second way was by the feast celebrated on the day, such as Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day, or St. Patrick’s Day.

Now and Forever
The Art of Medieval Time
The Morgan Library and Museum
Morgan Stanley West Gallery
225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street
New York City
Through April 29

Other features, such as Golden Numbers (which tracked the year’s new moons) and Dominical Letters (which located Sundays), were used to find the date of Easter. Normal saints’ days were indicated in black, while significant feasts were written in red (thus red-letter days). A month’s two unlucky days (called Egyptian Days) were clearly noted. Also included was astronomical information, such as the start of the summer’s dies caniculares (Dog Days). The exhibition provides a very helpful chart on how to read a medieval calendar. The Da Costa Hours (1515), illuminated by Simon Bening, opened to a page depicting robust peasants reaping wheat in August opposite a calendar that offers an object combining utility and beauty.

These calendars, peculiar as they may seem to modern eyes, were perpetual, used from one year to the next, and none numbered the days sequentially, as is done today.

In liturgical time, the day became divided into eight canonical hours: Matins and Lauds (midnight), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (sunset), and Compline (evening). Many present-day monastic orders have retained this division of the day. Sunday, in honor of Christ’s resurrection, began the week of seven days.

Two overlapping systems governed the medieval year: the temporale and the sanctorale. Feasts celebrating the sequential events relating to the life of Christ were part of the temporale (which would come to include the feasts of protomartyr Stephen, John the Evangelist, and Pope Silvester), while the sanctorale commemorated the days when saints died: their “birthdays” into heaven. By the late Middle Ages, there were over 125 saints’ days celebrated across Europe. Feasts were ranked, and one feast might take precedence over another if they occurred on the same day. There was no universal system of ranking; they varied not only from place to place but from one religious order to another.

Vestiges of this form of medieval timekeeping remain today. The medieval vigil, the start of an important feast on the day before, is today’s eve (such as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve). In like manner, when we refer to Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day, we know their dates.

The Sacramentary of Mont Saint-Michel (ca. 1060), a superbly preserved temporale depicting the Ascension (Movable Feast), shows a red-robed and ascending Christ, flanked by the angels who explain to the awestruck apostles witnessing the event that Christ will return in the same manner to judge the world. The German “Berthold Sacramentary” is an equally beautiful temporale for Palm Sunday (Movable Feast), illuminated for Abbot Berthold of Weingarten between 1215 and 1217.

Three books of hours, from Italy, Belgium, and France, dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, show moments from the life of the Virgin. Such books of hours enabled laypeople, in imitation of the clergy, to pray throughout the course of the Canonical Hours in the privacy of their homes. Executed in jewel-like colors, these examples highlight the skills of the illuminators in creating devotional objects that are also aesthetically pleasing.

The “Piccolomini Breviary,” illuminated in Florence for Cardinal Jacopo Ammanati Piccolomini by Mariano del Buono around 1475-80, is a sanctorale distinguished by the allegorical image of the Church as a ship. Here, Christ is crucified upon the ship’s mast; God wields the rudder, while the Holy Spirit perches on the prow as a dove. Apostles man the oars, and countless saints fill the deck. On shore, the hopeful good wait to board, while on the right, evil forces are powerless to prevail over them. Del Buono has handled this packed scene deftly, sacrificing neither the image’s message nor its artistic force.

Some of the exhibition’s most compelling objects and iconography attest to the medieval period’s understanding of historical time and of humanity’s ultimate fate. The Bible was both the Word of God and a record of humanity’s early history. The Hebrew Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament) was a chronicle of actual events. The New Testament was the record of the life and death of Christ and of the early history of the Church, at times mentioning historic figures with known dates. A.D, Anno Domini (In the Year of Our Lord), derived from the dating system devised in the 6th century based on the (presumed) year of Christ’s birth.

Whereas today the Mayflower would mark the genesis of modern history (in America, at least), Troy marked the beginning of European civil history for the Middle Ages. Once it fell, the courageous Trojans sailed off and founded European cities, such as Rome, Paris, and London. A continuous link was therefore created by these descendants of Noah (so medievals believed) and the events traced in the Bible.

Among the outstanding examples underscoring these complex beliefs is the Leaf from a Bible with its extremely stretched and gilded initial I of the opening of Genesis (In principio: In the beginning), containing scenes of key moments from the Creation, as well as those of Christ’s life. A temporale (and Antiphonary) for Easter (Movable Feast), created in Milan, Italy (1470-95), presents a fine illumination of the resurrection with musical notation on the opposite page. And the French Chronique universelle (1473-83), a 60-foot-long scroll outlining the 6,500 years of the history of the world from the Creation to King Louis XI of France, is the exhibition’s central object and the most fully illustrated copy of this document known to exist.

In the section “Time after Time,” the show concludes with the late Middle Ages’ great obsessions: death, judgment, heaven, and hell, known as the “four last things.” Beautiful yet terrifying iconography (including two rare works showing figures in Limbo) depicting these universal human experiences adorn the selection of books of hours and antiphonaries on view, affording visitors some sense of what our medieval forbears might have felt as they contemplated these cautionary and fearful images.

Tightly organized in the Morgan Stanley Gallery, Now and Forever is a comprehensive and accessible exhibition about a complex period of time within the Middle Ages. It provides answers to questions about how notions of time were conceived and developed, and explains why these notions still persist. The beauty of these objects will draw us in and hold our gaze, staying with us long after we have moved on in time.

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


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