Phoenix Art Museum highlights the razzle-dazzle of ancient calligraphy in its "Illuminated Manuscripts" exhibit

Whether you're a Bible-thumper, enlightened Buddhist, or totally faithless, you can't deny that spirituality has birthed some great art. The cave drawings of Lascaux weren't the caveman's version of a movie theater; they were visual prayers to promote plentiful hunting and survival. Aztec temples didn't feed any architect's ego; they were built to perform grandiose sacrificial ceremonies to appease the Gods.

Christianity also managed to toss up its fair share of art to sway the masses, and illuminated Bibles were an integral part of early Christian worship. In the beginning, these books had to catch the illiterate eye. So when monastic scribes painstakingly copied the texts by hand, they added a little razzle-dazzle with decorative calligraphy, detailed illustrations, colorful ink, and gold or silver leaf. Inevitably, the printing press made production simple, and the tradition fell by the wayside.

Phoenix Art Museum's "Illuminated Manuscripts" brings the ancient books back and shows off a brand-new Bible in the making.

The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Donald Jackson
courtesy of the Phoenix Art Museum
The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Donald Jackson

Details

"Illuminated Manuscripts" will be exhibited through March 9. Admission is $10 for adults, $4 for children, and is free on Tuesdays after 3 p.m. Call 602-257-1222 or visit »web link.
Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central Avenue (at McDowell Road and Central Avenue)

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And you don't even have to be a Jesus-lover to love it.

The show is overwhelming in the best way — the type you won't digest in just one visit. While I could easily gush about all the pieces, I can offer a description of only a few, with an enthusiastic recommendation to see the rest.

The exhibition takes place in three parts. First, you are greeted by leafs of a contemporary illuminated Bible, commissioned by St. John's University in Minnesota. It's the first hand-produced Bible commissioned in more than 500 years, and is a work in progress. The project is a collaboration of Donald Jackson, one of the best-known contemporary scribes/illuminators, and a team of eight artists and scribes.

The second part showcases the early history of the Bible with works provided by The Walters Art Museum of Baltimore. This assortment of impressive historic texts is followed by part three: "Selections from the James Melikian Collection." It's the first public showing of this avid collector's rare manuscripts. The three-part combo rounds out the show into a breathtaking study of a recently rediscovered tradition.

Of the contemporary St. John's version, my favorite work is by artist Thomas Ingmire, whose clean, geometric abstractions of image and text are, by far, the most up-to-date compositions. In Ten Commandments, the full-page spread illustrates its neighboring text, relaying the story of Moses' journey as one of God's prophets. Four vertical segments run across the top of the page and display abstracted symbols of the burning bush, the first Passover, the 12 pillars at Mt. Sinai and the crossing of the Red Sea — the major events of Moses' mission. The scrolling text of God's words is delivered in 24-carat gold leaf in a bold sans serif font and overlaps the bases of these columns. As the verse continues, words turn from gold to black and are slowly squished together. Midway down the page, the letters begin to lose their filling and become mere outline. They eventually overlap each other and lose delineation, ultimately resulting in a completely blank area at the bottom of the page. It's a symbol of the failure of God's followers to uphold His expectations, dragging humanity down to an empty state.

Another excerpt from the manuscript that I particularly enjoyed is The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Donald Jackson. A backdrop of pastel-colored squares is stamped across both pages. Repeated circular imprints of geometric patterns dance throughout the composition and gold specks randomly decorate the entire surface like a splash of 24-carat confetti. Among the gorgeous chaos are black outlines of two fish and five golden circles of bread. Jackson chooses a fish design taken from an ancient mosaic in Tabgha (the traditional site of the event), and the basket geometry is borrowed from Anasazi designs. As a product of today's politically correct world, Jackson intends to reach a broad anthropological spectrum.

The Walters Art Museum portion is for the history buffs. It showcases a 500-year-old leaf from the very first Bible printed on Gutenberg's press. People must have been expected to actually read this because there aren't any pretty pictures or shining gold in this text. It's just clean columns of German type — but definitely a treat to see for its historic value.

Another exciting artifact is a Torah scroll that dates back to the first half of the 17th century. Being a gentile, I'd never seen a Torah scroll before. They usually are tucked away in Jewish synagogues, reserved for religious use only. This scroll is damaged and deemed unfit for active duty, but the scrawling russet-colored Hebrew writing against the aged parchment is still a gorgeous sight.

The third installment of the exhibition is located in the last gallery of the show and provides a nice sendoff. Some of the oldest texts are in this room. Again, it's a condensed display of stunning books, but here I got to see some impressive book covers. I loved the Cover for an Armenian Psalter, made in 1789. The embroidered silver thread on velvet renders a squat and clumsy Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. The stitches are amazingly intact and, though they have their fair share of tarnish, pockets of glistening silver can still be seen.

Great art thrives from true inspiration — no matter the origin. And this exhibition illustrates inspiration beautifully.

 
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