Illuminating Medieval and Renaissance Materials at Rose Library

Kelin Michael is a PhD candidate in Art History at Emory and a student employee of the Rose Library.

In the spring of 2018, my colleague in the Art History department here at Emory, Emma de Jong, told me about a curatorial project she was about to embark on in conjunction with Pitts Theology Library and its then Head of Research and Access Services, Dr. Sarah Bogue. She informed me that the exhibition was to focus on Early Modern devotional materials. As an aspiring curator with a focus on medieval art history, I asked if it would be overstepping to ask if I could volunteer to consult on the project. To my delight, both Emma and Sarah welcomed me with open arms, and we began the processes of designing our exhibition.

My first contribution in the planning stages was to suggest that we expand the scope of the exhibition to include the medieval and Early Modern materials housed in Rose Library’s collection. After working at Rose for two and a half years at that point in time, I knew that the library had a small, but incredibly rich collection of pertinent materials that most people never know exists! I wanted to use this opportunity to bring this extraordinary group of books, scrolls, and manuscript leaves to light.

After presenting the idea to my co-curators, we decided to reconceptualize the show in a way that allowed the presentation of both medieval and Early Modern materials. Fairly early on in the planning stages, we agreed upon the title The Materiality of Devotion: From Manuscript to Print. The exhibition, as it then stood in our minds, would seek to explore the transition from manuscript to print culture while examining how that shift affected various forms of devotion, both private and public. With our goal in hand, we set off on our mission to bring renewed life to these incredible objects.

By including objects from Pitts Theology Library, Rose Library, and the Michael C. Carlos Museum, all Emory University institutions, we strove to demonstrate what could be achieved with a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to curatorial work. When discussing the potential of the project with each repository, we were met with enthusiasm, support, and an interest in placing objects from different collections in conversation with their own. We were most grateful for this support which made the process of acquiring our desired objects possible.

After months of planning, the exhibition ultimately ran from mid-December 2018 to mid-March 2019. We structured the space in a way which aimed to educate the viewer about various forms of devotion while commenting on how the physical material and appearance of these objects affected those forms of devotion. Our major areas of focus included personal and private devotion, biblical and formative devotion, the role of the city in devotional practice, instructional practices, the role of devotion in sacred and genealogical scrolls, and the role of multilingual resources as tools of devotion.

Material from Rose Library featured in ten of the twenty-two cases and was instrumental in constructing the narrative we conveyed to our audience. I would now like to highlight some key objects from Rose’s collection that added depth and nuance to our exhibition.

The first was displayed in our case on formative devotion and is a vellum leaf from around 1300 CE on which a portion of Peter Lombard’s Sentences is written. Lombard’s Sentences was one of the first attempts at systematic theology (the formulation of a rational and orderly account of the doctrines of the Christian faith). The work became the standard medieval theology textbook, which is why it was crucial to include in our show.

This manuscript Bible was a gift to the Emory Libraries by Charles Howard Candler. It can be requested through the Library catalog, discoverE, for use at the Rose Library.

The second object is Rose’s Manuscript Bible. Created around 1200 CE and consisting of 275 vellum leaves, this large bible would likely have been used in an ecclesiastical or monastic setting. The marginal notations and illuminated initials would have aided the reader in navigating the page, a reader who would likely have recited the text out loud, creating a multisensory devotional experience. We were lucky to be able to include a printed Bible directly facing this manuscript Bible in the exhibition, allowing viewers to compare and contrast the two.

Third, is a 1493 copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, which narrates human history up until the time of its publication while relating it to the Bible. It contains 1806 woodcut images stemming from 645 individual blocks, meaning blocks were used multiple times. In another case of benefiting from collaboration, Pitts Theology Library had an opening from a Nuremberg Chronicle in their collection, allowing us to simultaneously display two different views from the book’s numerous pages. As such, we decided to show two different cityscapes, Nuremberg, the city of the book’s creation, and (the destruction of) Jerusalem.

This genealogical scroll is a part of the Rose Library Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance Eastern and Western manuscript collection. It can be requested through the Emory Libraries Findings Aids, for use at the Rose Library.

The next two objects are scrolls. One is a fifteenth-century chronicle roll which begins with the seven days of creation and ends with Queen Elizabeth I of England. The roll contains biblical, mythical, and royal histories which serve to convince the viewer of the legitimacy and power of the English royal line. The second is a Hebrew scroll, likely from before the sixteenth century, which contains text from the Book of Esther. This text is traditionally read during Purim, the Jewish holiday which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman (as recounted in the Book of Esther). By featuring these two objects in cases which faced each other, we hoped to demonstrate the scroll format’s importance to different versions of devotional practice. 

In our case on multilingual manuscript texts, we featured an Ottoman Qur’an manuscript, Qur’an manuscript leaves, a leaf from the Nestorian Homilies, and a leaf from John Chrysostom’s Homilies. The Ottoman Qur’an showcases the use of juz’ flowers, which mark the beginning of each of the thirty parts of the Qur’an, while the Qur’an leaves include red signs (circles) which helped to indicate stops and pauses readers should be conscious of when reciting the text. Both of these examples appear in Arabic. In contrast, the leaf from the Nestorian Homilies is written in the oldest form of Syriac script (Estrangelo) and the leaf from John Chrysostom’s Homilies is written in Greek and was preserved as binding material for a later text. All of these texts helped us, as curators, to illustrate the presence and devotional importance of languages other than Latin during the medieval and Early Modern eras.

This manuscript leaf comes from a collection of poems by the great Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz. It can be requested through the Emory Libraries Findings Aids, for use at the Rose Library.

The final major area of the exhibition which featured Rose Library materials was our case on Arabic language devotion. In this case, we displayed three Qur’an manuscript leaves alongside two leaves of Hafiz’s poetry. The Qur’an leaves showcased the range of appearances of Qur’anic material, including instances of gold leaf, catchwords (words used to match up corresponding pages of the manuscript during binding), and the absence of painted and colored frames (common for Qur’anic manuscripts produced in Ottoman Syria between 1600 and 1800). The two leaves of Hafiz’s poetry, in contrast, were much more lavishly decorated, with clouds, a floral illumination headpiece, and gold and blue backgrounds. With these objects we wanted to demonstrate how purely devotional texts, like the Qur’an, inspired the creation of other types of devotional texts, like Hafiz’s “theosophical” poetry.

With fellowship awards from the Mellon Humanities PhD Interventions Program and the Laney Graduate School New Thinkers/New Leaders program, we were able, not only to realize our exhibition, but to create a print and online exhibition catalogue and to organize a one-day symposium which featured eight talks centered around various aspects of the show. Rose Library’s collections were instrumental to the realization of this project, and I hope that we were able to illustrate what can be accomplished with cross-institutional collaboration at Emory. 




One Reply to “Illuminating Medieval and Renaissance Materials at Rose Library”

Comments are closed.