Manuscripts and Munich

Hi everyone! I arrived in Munich on Tuesday afternoon, and spent that day settling into my new apartment, which is both cuter and smaller (in a good way) than I expected. Wednesday I went to the Rachel Carson Center for the first time, and met my new colleagues and compatriots and filled in all of my paperwork, etc. Thursday is when things really got going--I went to work in the morning, and started working with Ausonius' poetry (4th century Latin poet--but more on him in another post), and we had our first lunchtime colloquium--which happen every Thursday. At these, the Carson fellows take turns giving 20-25 minute research talks for the other fellows, the Center's graduate students, and anyone from the public who wants to come. This week's was on Canadian mining pollution. I am already recognizing through the talk and through many interesting conversations with other fellows how different and engaging it will be to be surrounded by other environmental historians.

Since I am trying to really set a M-F work week for myself, on Saturday I went exploring.The morning began with a terrific surprise--Snow! So I headed down to the Altstadt to wander around with my camera before heading to a planned trip to a museum exhibit with two of my new colleagues: Pracht auf Pergament or "Power on Parchment, treasures of the book arts from 780 to 1180. Those of you who have taken classes from me know how much I love early medieval manuscripts--this was an exhibit hosted by the Bavarian state archives of75 manuscripts! It was astounding in its scope--seeing so many of the highest quality manuscripts all at once is not over overwhelming, it is also highlights the range and variety of artistic and spiritual work they represent. For a tiny taste of this, see their full catalog.

And they GLOWED! It was amazing (excellent exhibit design in terms of showcasing this) how each one shone and glittered--I was almost bowled over by one page that was an almost completely illuminated (covered with gold leaf) crucifixion scene--when you looked at it from the side, you could see the whole scene, but when you were directly in the beam of its reflected light, all you could see was a golden glow, with the figure of Christ (completely free of gold leaf) standing out starkly from the background. Such an amazing blend of religious intent, artistic imagination, and wealth.

And these were powerful expressions of wealth, spiritual power, and secular control. Many of these were manuscripts prepared specially for kings and queens, or for high celebrations of the most powerful monasteries--they were jewel-encrusted (either at the time or, frequently, in the later Middle Ages), gilded, and full of expensive illustrations and illuminations (see the Uta Codex for example). Yet even with so many manuscripts gathered together, it was surprisingly easy to focus on the beauty, charms, and power of each one (hats off to the exhibit designers--the layout of the exhibit managed to enhance both the collective power and individual beauty of the manuscripts). And there were some very important individual manuscripts that I never expected to be able to see in person: the Bamberg Apocalypse (on loan), the Evangelary of Otto III, the Perikope of Henry II, etc. Yet for me some of the highlights were being introduced to some manuscripts I had not known about.

One that stands out is the Sacramentary of Henry II (you can see it on the exhibit catalog, but read about it in English on this facsimile site). The first thing that struck me is how thick and heavy a manuscript made of 360 vellum pages is! It was also incredibly beautiful and intricate, with one of the most amazing single pages I've ever seen (the one on the left in the facsimile image). When you first looked at it, it resemble the carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels; as you shifted your gaze around, you could read the end of a prayer. It was next to an elaborate crucifixion scene, but I couldn't stop looking at and thinking about the words on the facing page--it was a very personal reminder of the ultimate prayerful and meditative goals of these manuscripts.

A second manuscript that really struck me was a gospel book produced at the monastery of Ottobeuren around 1165. It was bold and vibrant, with a striking immediacy and directness to the illustrations. It had bold, clean colors and very thick, black lines. Here's an image from it.

A few notes on the exhibit--one of the most interesting things to me about this is it's clear experimentation (sometimes extraordinary, sometimes less than successful) with newer modes of information technology. First, the elaborate website, which is great to explore (but absolutely NOT a substitute for a visit, so they really lose no audience that way--and wow, I went early in the morning, and so got in relatively quickly, but there was a line of over 200 people two hours (!) later when we left). Secondly, they attempted an iphone app, which I had hoped would be a different way than audioguides to navigate exhibit, but no, it was unfortunately more of an extended advertisement than a practical thing to use while in the exhibit. But it made me truly curious about the potential for richer apps for museum or historic site navigation. They still used those horrible handsets (that you had to pay for, and that contained 'privileged' information) and this led to the predictable traffic jams around certain MSS. They also made a huge mistake of putting all of the textual information about the MSS in each room on one giant wall plaque rather than with each of the respective MSS, leading to a shallowness of info unless you deliberately sought it out, which I observed very few people doing.

Finally, and most strikingly, they had a separate room where you could use the website's digital editions on full sized touch screens, where they informed people more about the medieval technology of bookmaking (absent from the main exhibit), and where they showcased an astounding modern technology--a giant flatscreen digital book with an interactive "3-D" manipulation technology. You stood at a series of lasers, and moved your hands to turn the pages, pull the book closer, or even close it and turn it around in your hands. Truly captivating and also quite fun, after being so tantalizingly close to the real books.

Alright--enough!  Clearly, I loved this experience. :)  Spend some time on the website--it's worth it.