‘Treasures From The Vault’ At Morgan Library & Museum

Photo: Graham S Haber

Book of Hours, in Latin, Belgium, Bruges, 1531, illuminated by Simon Bening. The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1911.

NEW YOPRK CITY —  The fall exhibition season at the Morgan Library and Museum includes touchstones of art, literature and music — from drawings by Leonardo da Vinci to a survey of Edgar Allan Poe’s works to a reuniting of two manuscript copies of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Complementing these exceptional items are more than 20 diverse works from the Morgan’s permanent collections, presented as part of the ongoing exhibition series, “Treasures from the Vault.” These objects are currently on view until February 9.

Typically, medieval gospel books featured a portrait of each author — Matthew, Mark, Luke or John — at the preface to his gospel. In addition to harking back to antique tradition, such portraits also functioned as bookmarks, since medieval manuscripts were neither foliated nor paginated. The portraits in the Twelfth Century English codex on view are unusual as they depict each evangelist riding atop his symbol. Because the symbols derive from the Old Testament, this iconography hints at the New Testament’s dependence upon but superiority to the Old Testament.

The first real images most Europeans saw of the New World were maps published three years after Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Valley of Mexico. Two such Sixteenth Century maps are on view, depicting the capital of the Nahuatl (Aztec) civilization, Tenochtitlan — complete with Moctezuma’s palace and a public zoo — and the Gulf of Mexico, marking the first time Florida is named on a map.

For more than 300 years, Books of Hours were a popular means of assisting the faithful with their devotions, teaching children to read and recording family histories. Some small and precious Books of Hours, however, functioned less like a book and more like a piece of jewelry. The ornamental quality of the Sixteenth Century manuscript on view — illuminated by Simon Bening, the last and greatest Flemish illuminator of that century — was enhanced two centuries later when its owner commissioned its elaborate, detachable gilt silver filigree binding.

Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII, contrived the king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. In Cromwell’s letter to Sir Nicholas Wotton, the king’s ambassador in Cleves, he urged him to “use therfor ye Wisedom and Dexteritie herin to satisfie his [Majestry] accordingly.” The marriage was a disaster and led to Cromwell’s execution for treason and heresy. 

Presented for the first time is a significant recent music acquisition, a newly identified copyist manuscript for the music of Domenico Scarlatti and Antonio Soler, both of whom were in service to the Spanish court of Maria Bárbara. Because no autograph manuscripts of Scarlatti’s or Soler’s music survive, copyist manuscripts that can be definitively linked with the composers carry great importance. The piece on view by Scarlatti was dubbed The Cat’s Fugue because the opening, dissonant theme skips about as if a cat were walking upon the keys.

The first edition of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was published in nine volumes, two of which are on view. As Sterne himself noted in a letter to actor David Garrick, the first two volumes had “made a great noise” and the author tried to compete against pirated editions by signing some volumes of the genuine edition as a mark of authenticity.

Charles Dickens enjoyed great success in America, a fact confirmed by a letter from his wife, Catherine, to her sister-in-law. Written shortly after the couple’s arrival in Boston, the letter describes the author as being “perfectly worshipped, and crowds follow him in the streets even.” She goes on, “The people are most hospitable, and we shall both be killed with kindness.”

More than 15 years passed after the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida before he debuted a new opera, Otello, to great acclaim at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1887. Verdi would have been 70 or 71 years of age when he quickly sketched the early draft of the scene between Cassio and Iago on view. 

Despite his description of James Joyce’s Ulysses as “a depressing book” that “no one in their right mind could possibly enjoy,” E.M. Forster believed “it is, possibly, a masterpiece.” Around 1934 he drafted the article on display in support of Ulysses, which was first published in Paris in 1922 but banned in the United States and England until the 1930s. In it, Forster calls on fellow authors to support the novel’s publication and to fight censorship.

The Morgan Library & Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street. For information, www.themorgan.org or 212-685-0008.


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