Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Crusader Bible - seeing others in our own image

Yesterday I saw one of the great treasures of the Morgan Library: the Crusader Bible.  I was lucky - the exhibition opened on 17 October. It isn't really a bible at all, because originally there was no text, just 283 incredibly detailed, gold-laden images of successive scenes from the Old Testament. The book is thought to have been originally made around 1250 for King Louis IX of France, who later became St Louis. He commissioned the glorious Sainte Chapelle In Paris.

But like other rulers of our own time, he was also obsessed with waging war in the East, mounting seven crusades, the last of which killed him. (In those days rulers did at least lead their own troops, and knew at first hand what carnage ensued, though that didn't put them off doing it over and over again.) 

The Crusader Bible was designed to shore up Louis' reputation as a Christian crusader against the infidel, I.e. the Muslims. So every Old Testament story is shown in contemporary terms, with the Israelites depicted as Crusaders endlessly battling the Philistines, etc, etc. this makes it a remarkable record of 13th century life. 

This book has had almost as eventful a history as the Sarajevo Haggadah (discussed recently on National Radio, and the subject of Geraldine Brooks' extraordinary novel, People of the Book). Over the centuries it travelled from France to Italy, Poland, Persia, Egypt, England, and finally New York. Various owners added captions and wrote notes in the margins. 

It's about to be rebound, and this means the library has been able, for the first time, to put 40 of the pictures on display. My favourites - a welcome relief from men fighting each other - were the ones showing the story of Ruth. 

But looking at all of them again, I was struck by how each ideology and each side involved in violent conflict has confidently portrayed alien "others" in their own image, only an utterly mistaken or evil version, needing to be either wiped out or shown the right path, regardless of the deep cultural and historical gulfs between them. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Memories at the Met

Today I got up the courage to tackle the Metropolitan Museum. The queue wasn't too bad, only about 10 minutes' wait (I knew better than to try checking my coat), and I had a somewhat limited but sensible plan: head straight for he Impressionists (the purple bits on the map).

I had already had a goodly sample of other periods:  medieval art at the Cloisters, Old Masters at the Frick, and Expressionism at the Neue Galerie, with MOMA to come next week. (Cubism at the Met opens to the public then too.) So as one does at giant museums, I strode purposefully past assorted wonders until I got to Degas in Room 810, with only a couple of stops to check I was going the right way.

It's not only the marvellously rich, warm, human paintings themselves - It's the associations they have. So there was one of Monet's many studies of Rouen Cathedral, this time bathed in midday sun. Harvey and I saw the cathedral in Rouen in 1999. We'd seen a group of these paintings before then, I think in Paris.

There were Giverny paintings too - one of the earlier water lily pictures, two very late almost abstract ones, and a path bordered with irises. Plus a vase of chrysanthemums. Thanks to our English friends who brought their car across to join us in Rouen, we managed to get to Giverny on the last day it was open, when the summer flowers had gone but the water lilies were still there - and swathes of chrysanthemums. 

I am so fortunate to have seen all this, and to have shared so much of it with Harvey. He had been to the Met himself earlier, and I know he went to see these paintings. Such pleasure.