4.20.18 — Forever and a Day

“For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

Had Saint Augustine lived a few more centuries, he still might not have had an answer, but he could have consulted some remarkable calendars. Unlike our own, they did not change from year to year since, as Augustine pointed out, “for God there is no time.” They present only a fixed column of days and annotations. Yet they had to be intricate and exacting enough to allow one to calculate the changing date of Easter—and, with each passing month, the changing hours of prayer. Master of Catherine of Cleves's Mouth of Hell (Morgan Library, c. 1440)With their saint’s days, signs of the zodiac, and illustrations of seasonal labor, they could embody the paradox that so perplexed him, of eternity and human experience. They also open a show about just that, “Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time” at the Morgan Library through April 29.

The Morgan embodies the paradox in the show’s structure. After the calendars come breviaries and books of hours, to take one from the days of the year to the hours of the day, and then scenes of history. Yet history has to encompass not so much the reign of kings as the reign of heaven. It has to begin with a “time before time,” in order to show the creation, and it has to end with a time after time, in order to show the last judgment. In between comes the fall of Troy, perhaps because the Rome claimed an ancestry in Troy’s survivors, as in Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Roman empire still marked the limits of the known world. The church did, after all, conduct its business in Latin.

The show also marks the Middle Ages as a time between times. It falls between the calendar reforms of Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory, whose Gregorian calendar of 1582 did not quite catch on in parts of Europe until the nineteenth century. Clocks existed as early as 1300, but the Morgan includes just one, in an illustration. Temperance balances it on her head, since she, too, must outlast change. The curator, Roger Wieck, ends with something almost as intricate, the only surviving astrolabe from the era. Its worn wooden disk is difficult to read today, but it had to track multiple scales of time.

While the paradox of time suggests a division between heavenly and earthly realms, their inhabitants would not have seen it that way. Myth and history ran together, just like labor and prayer. Saul appears as a lesson in kingship, for Boccaccio around 1480, much as in the Morgan’s own Crusader Bible—and never mind Saul’s madness. Another vivid illustration connects the realms directly. A saint’s vision becomes a ray piercing three tiers of heaven, from the saint to her god. (Remember that earlier times thought of ordinary vision as emanating from the observer rather than as light reflected off objects and into the eye.)

Despite its title, the show runs well into the Renaissance. (The San Zeno astrolabe dates to around 1455 in Verona.) It can thus encompass yet another time scale, that of art history. The Berthold Sacramentary, from Germany around 1215, uses gilding to accentuate its thick lines and clashing colors. By the show’s end, the glory of Troy has taken on the courtly gestures of the late Middle Ages, much as in a past show of the Morgan’s Book of the Hunt. So what's NEW!The first calendar insets for labor give way to full scenes of earthly toil and pleasures for the Da Costa Hours by Simon Bening from roughly 1510.

A medieval world of ritual, toil, and a last judgment may sound dismal, but the illustrators and their readers seem to be having no end of fun. Devils dragging souls to hell in the Hours of Claude Molé, from around 1500, are sure having fun, and the beast and dragon in the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse from the 1290s are no less entertaining. The fires of purgatory rise up from a triumphal arch. Regulars to the Morgan will know the fiery pleasures of the gates of hell in the Hours of Catherine of Cleves from around 1440 as well. Even the hard work of harvest time looks downright relaxing, more than a hundred years before Pieter Bruegel.

Except for the astrolabe, the museum relies almost entirely on its collection. It also supplies detailed explanations for its instruments, so that anyone with enough patience and temperance can play the game. (The apostles turn up in a calendar, because who can resist the coincidence of twelve of them for twelve months?) Augustine might still be in a state of wonderment, but his best guess sounds refreshingly mundane: “yet I say with confidence that . . . if nothing passed away, there would not be past time; and if nothing were coming, there would not be future time; and if nothing were, there would not be present time.” Preserve your memories, pursue your future, and take your time.

4.18.18 — Scattered Bodies

“God is already famous,” said Paul Bocuse, “but that doesn’t stop the preacher from ringing the church bells every morning.” The late French chef was not above promoting his vast influence, no more than the deity—to judge by a color sketch by Peter Paul Rubens of a village sermon.

And it worked, for all eyes turn in rapture to the pulpit at upper right, where a fat and less than charismatic preacher looks about as marginal as his position on paper. Meanwhile an aisle draws the eye into depth, past two restless dogs, to where a lone face looks away. MutualArtAlthough clean shaven, it might be Rubens himself, questioning for once his own orthodoxy and fervor. His skepticism adds an additional double note to “Power and Grace,” Flemish Baroque drawings at the Morgan Library.

The Morgan borrows that sketch from the Met, but the rest draws almost entirely on its collection, through April 29. Rubens commands the center, between facing walls for Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens to either side, as makes sense for the master’s greatest pupil and an artist some twenty years younger than both. van Dyck appears as the consummate observer, ever attentive to surfaces—and I have added this to an earlier report on van Dyck as a longer review and my latest upload. The highlights on a dead Christ all but dematerialize him, even as the light itself seems to weigh him down. A rare landscape bears the date on which van Dyck saw the hill town, its distance marked by crossing branches in the foreground. He takes note of the observer, too, lending the greatest weight to a witness at the mystic marriage of Saint Catherine, in darker ink and wash at the drawing’s center.

Jordaens has harsher colors and stiffer figures. Religious and genre scenes alike fall between sentiment and caricature. A mother shows her tenderness even as she and her daughter raise anxious eyes toward the unknown. The artist lends his own features to a peasant stuffing his face with only modest encouragement from a satyr. The woman in an allegory of vanity seems to have every right to scorn the men bringing her a skull. Jesus commands attention in Christ Among the Doctors, but three tiers of figures and the architecture afford him a worthy niche.

The show takes its title from Rubens himself, as he articulated his aims. He studies the leg muscles of, no doubt, a corpse, but he allows them the power and dignity to stand erect. A third leg gives Rubens another chance to get it right, Anthony van Dyck's Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (Morgan Library, c. 1618–1620)but also another chance for his subject to bear weight. Angels blowing trumpets flex their arms and legs, too, not to mention their lips and cheeks. Yet they seem no less graceful and lithe, as they fit neatly into niches to either side of a broad arch. They would have served as models for carvings in an Antwerp cathedral.

Daniel in the lion’s den is even more impressive without the lions. A study isolates a young male model and brings him forward, seemingly within reach. One knee breaks the picture plane, while Daniel raises his clasped hands in front of his neck. Darker or doubled strokes of black chalk accentuate their irregular outlines and musculature. Lighter and longer strokes define wisps of hair for his head thrown back in prayer. His stability adds to the sense of motion and strength to prayer.

Many more Rubens drawings came to the Met in 2005. One could see him working his way out of Mannerism, so that studies like these could become more active and less cluttered. Rubens hardly needs the touches of white chalk to bring them fully into three dimensions. The trumpeting angels could be calling the corpse to life, much like the trumpets “at the round earth’s imagined corners” in a sonnet by a near contemporary in England, John Donne: “arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities of souls, and / To your scattered bodies go.” Go, that is, with power and grace.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.