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A Magnate’s Magnificent Collection

Morgan’s Bibles: Splendor in Scripture
The Morgan Library and Museums
Madison Avenue at 36th Street, New York
Through January 21

Portrait of John Pierpont Morgan, 1903 | Fedor Encke, public domain via Wikipedia

Few figures have occupied as prominent a place in America’s economic and social history as did investment banker John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913). For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (popularly known as the Gilded Age), this native of Hartford, Connecticut, dominated corporate finance on Wall Street, and spearheaded the formation of several prominent multinational corporations, including U.S. Steel and General Electric. So profound was Morgan’s influence over this nation’s financial policies and its underlying market forces that its effects have remained to this day.

A large man with piercing eyes and a prominent purple nose (because of rosacea), Pierpont Morgan (which he preferred to John) was an imposing presence to all who engaged with him, and in his photographs the penetrating glare that bears down on the viewer like an approaching locomotive conveys the persona of a self-confident and unapologetic capitalist.

Alongside his commerce-centered life, Morgan also developed a deep interest in art; because of his father’s plans, he had a varied education, both in this country and in Europe. Schooling in Switzerland gave him greater fluency in French, and he improved his German and earned a degree in art history at the University of Gottingen, completing his studies in 1857. It was Morgan’s lifelong appreciation of history and of artistic brilliance in all its forms that inspired his collecting some of the world’s masterpieces, many of which are housed in the Morgan Library and Museum, or that he made as gifts to other art institutions.

Embroidered Bible | Anne Cornwallis Leigh (ca. 1640)

Morgan recognized the significance of the printed word, and his vast collection includes illuminated manuscripts, scrolls, and illustrated books (such as the first edition of A Christmas Carol). Morgan’s greatest passion was for Bibles, and various editions and versions of Western civilization’s most important sacred text, hailing from diverse periods and places, are on glorious display.

The Bible was the touchstone of Morgan’s religious convictions as a lifelong and devout Episcopalian in the low-church tradition. (A much-used copy, his name embossed on the cover, is on view.) For him, the Scriptures were more reliable than ritual and dogma, and though he eschewed his father’s more austere religious discipline in favor of a worship rich in history and tradition, his faith informed his business dealings. As an influential leader in the church, Morgan was appointed one of the first laymen on the committee that created the 1892 version of the Book of Common Prayer; and in his later years, he helped plan the design for and fund the construction of the (still unfinished) Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In ecclesiastical art and architecture, he preferred French High Gothic; and though he understood that the King James Version reflected numerous scholarly redactions, political and doctrinal disputes, and constant translations, he was unwaveringly loyal to it.

Morgan began collecting seriously when he inherited his father’s fortune in 1890. He made excellent choices, but also made mistakes (prompting the redoubtable Mrs. Morgan, his mother, to remark that he would buy anything from a pyramid to Mary Magdalene’s tooth). But by the end of the decade he had refined his vision and developed his taste, thanks to the advice of his assistants Junius Spencer Morgan II and Belle da Costa Greene (who later became the Morgan’s first director).

The Amherst Papyrus, which he bought in 1912 (the year before he died), was one of his better decisions. Though now riddled with holes and extremely fragile, this single sheet, dating from the second half of the third century, bears the still discernible Greek words of the first five verses of Genesis in the Septuagint. Named for Lord Amherst of Hackney, a pioneering English collector of Egyptian antiquities, the papyrus is the earliest surviving text of this passage from the Bible’s initial book. Morgan bought it along with other Egyptian papyrus documents from the English connoisseur, making this among his most significant, as well as quietly emotive, acquisitions.

King Henry VIII had decried the audacity of William Tyndale’s having translated the Bible into English, but the translator’s “pestilent glosses,” or side notes, were even worse, making him an unrepentant heretic; and the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned John Wycliffe, banning his subversive manuscripts in 1409. Both scholars were executed for their transgression. Morgan, who recognized the importance of the Bible in the development of English culture and wanted to trace the evolution of the text he used in church services and personal devotion, sought and purchased early editions of note. A superb copy of the 1611 King James Bible is on display, as well as several intact forerunners.

Lindau Gospels, front cover (ca. 870-80)

The Lindau Gospels, which Morgan purchased in 1901, was designated as the Morgan’s “M1” (manuscript number 1) and is the exhibition’s centerpiece. Its sumptuous repousse gold and jeweled front cover dates to ca. 870-80 in eastern France; the rear cover dates earlier and was probably made in the region around Salzburg, Austria. Ranking among the Morgan’s great masterpieces as one of the most important examples of all medieval treasure bindings, it underscores the importance Morgan placed on objects that spoke to his historic sensibility, intellectual curiosity, and high aesthetic standards.

Yet Morgan was not loath to acquire the humble work of nonprofessionals, such as Bibles with embroidered covers depicting a favorite passage or sacred figures. One exquisite example by a Staffordshire gentry woman, Anne Cornwallis Leigh, attests to this. Her embroidered Bible portrays Adam and Eve on the front cover and Mary Magdalene and Christ with the instruments of the Passion on the rear. Embellishing the Bible in this manner transformed the sacred text to a personal, prized possession, similar to other household goods, such as dresses, coats, or potholders.

But powerful and Bible-inspired works, notably Rembrandt’s dramatic etchings of Christ Preaching (known as The Hundred Guilder Print), Ecce Homo, and Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves, are not to be overlooked, nor the master of the martyrdom’s ivory interpretation of The Fall of Man, whose assertive Eve receives the apple from an angelic-looking serpent, while she in turn gives the fruit to an apprehensive Adam. The purple pages of The Golden Gospels of Henry VIII still evoke awe; and Johann Gutenberg’s Biblia Latina, one of the three possessed by the Morgan Library (the only institution in the world with that distinction) looks as fresh as it probably did when it emerged from its press run.

The Hundred Guilder Print | Rembrandt (ca. 1648)

The Bible is deeply embedded in our culture, language, and, as Morgan clearly understood, our art. It is the collected power of the printed word, but is also an object of veneration. Monarchs place their hand upon it and kiss it when taking the oath of coronation (as King Charles III did last May); presidents of the United States take the oath of office with one hand on the Bible; and witnesses swear on it to (we hope) tell the truth when giving evidence in court. Only Shakespeare’s works surpass the Bible as a source of common quotations and citations.

Like Soames, the ill-fated anti-hero in John Galsworthy’s novel The Forsyte Saga, Morgan was a “man of property.” But he was also a man of faith whose discerning vision moved him to collect forms of the Bible and great works of art inspired by this book, which he valued above all others. For him, collecting was not solely an exercise in connoisseurship, but also an object lesson in revealing the deeper meanings the Book of Books conveyed. It is to our benefit that Pierpont Morgan understood that Holy Writ brought out the best in human creativity during defining moments in Western civilization.


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