Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time – new exhibition comes to the Morgan Library
Before the appearance of the clock in the West around the year 1300, medieval ideas about time were simultaneously simple and complex. Time was both finite for routine daily activities and unending for the afterlife; the day was divided into a fixed set of hours, whereas the year was made up of two overlapping systems of annual holy feasts. Perhaps unexpectedly, many of these concepts continue to influence the way we understand time, seasons, and holidays into the twenty-first century.
Drawing upon the Morgan’s rich collection of illuminated manuscripts, Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time explores how people in the Middle Ages told time, conceptualized history, and conceived of the afterlife. It brings together more than fifty-five calendars, Bibles, chronicles, histories, and a sixty-foot genealogical scroll. They include depictions of monthly labors, the marking of holy days and periods, and fantastical illustrations of the hereafter. The exhibition opens January 26 and continues through April 29.
“Artists of the medieval period could render the most common of daily activities with transcendent beauty, while also creating a strange, often frightening, afterlife,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum. “Their work mirrored the era’s intricate mix of temporal, spiritual, and ancient methods for recording the passage of time. The elaborate prayer books, calendars, and other items in the exhibition provide a rich visual history of a world at once familiar and foreign, from the seasonal work of farmers that would not look unusual in today’s almanacs, to apocalyptic visions of eternity that make Hollywood’s futuristic films appear tame.”
The show is divided into five sections focusing on the medieval calendar, liturgical time, historical time, the hereafter (“time after time”), and the San Zeno Astrolabe.
I. The Medieval Calendar
Medieval calendars told time in two ways: through the ancient Roman calendar that Julius Caesar had reformed in 45 B.C. and by the feast (usually a saint’s day) celebrated on the day. They appear odd to modern eyes because they lack our sequential numbering; all medieval calendars were perpetual. But they also contained much useful data. Golden Numbers tracking the year’s new moons and Dominical Letters (A through G) tracking Sundays were both used to determine the date of Easter. Calendars also noted each month’s unlucky days and added astronomical information such as the beginning of the summer’s Dog Days.
In the Calendar of Ravenna, each month was gorgeously illustrated by its zodiacal sign—the constellation with its composite stars. Not simply aesthetically pleasing, this calendar also tracked the positions of the sun and the moon.
In addition to the signs of the zodiac, calendars often depicted the labors of each month—for instance, August was dedicated to reaping wheat. By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, this sole secular element within prayer books was given more focus. In fact, illuminator Simon Bening painted the labors on the folios of the Da Costa Hours as large full-page illustrations.
II. Liturgical Time
During this period, Europeans used the canonical hours to tell daily time. The medieval day was marked by eight hours, which the Church sanctified with prayer. The day began in the middle of the night (matins and lauds) and proceeded through the course of the day (beginning at sunrise with prime). The day ended in the evening (compline). The prayers became synonymous with the particular times they were recited. Books of Hours enabled laypeople to imitate the clergy and pray throughout the course of the day. A jewel-like Book of Hours illuminated by French Renaissance artist Jean Fouquet will be open to the Visitation, a scene marking the nighttime hour of lauds.
Two overlapping systems were used to structure the year: the temporale and the sanctorale. The temporale consisted largely of feasts celebrating events from the life of Christ. Some feasts had fixed dates, like Christmas; others were movable, like Easter. Feasts of the sanctorale were generally saints’ days, commemorating the days upon which the saints died and entered heaven.
Remnants of medieval timekeeping survive today. The medieval vigil, the commencement of an important feast on the evening before, has become today’s eve, such as Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. In The Berthold Sacramentary, a miniature marks Palm Sunday, when the inhabitants of Jerusalem laid cloaks and palms in Christ’s path as he entered the city. Distributing blessed palms on Palm Sunday is a medieval practice that continues to this day. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and St. Patrick’s Day all come from the medieval way of keeping time as well.
III. Historical Time
In the Middle Ages, the Bible was both the word of God and the early history of man. It was believed that the Hebrew Bible (the Christians’ Old Testament) chronicled actual ancient events, even if they had occurred long ago. The New Testament related the life and death of Christ and mentioned at times historic figures with known dates. In the sixth century, a new system of dating events was devised: years were described as A.D. or Anno Domini (In the Year of Our Lord), based on the presumed birthdate of Christ.
According to medieval tradition, ancient Troy marked the start of European civil history. When the city fell, the defeated but heroic Trojans sailed off and founded such major European cities as Rome, Paris, and London. The medieval belief that Troy itself was founded by descendants of Noah provided a seamless link between the people and events chronicled in the Bible and the Trojans, the forebears for all of Europe.
An anonymous compiler covered the six thousand years of history that began with Adam and Eve and concluded with fifteenth-century France as the world’s superpower in a sixty-foot scroll, the centerpiece of the exhibition. With sixty-six miniatures, it is the most fully illustrated copy of this universal chronicle known to exist. Outlining the history of the world from Creation to the reign of King Louis XI of France, it depicts five lines of descent: 1) the popes; 2) the Holy Roman Emperors; and 3) the kings of France, England, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
IV. Time after Time
Obsessed with the “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, and hell), people in the Middle Ages believed that time on earth was but a fleeting moment compared to the endlessness of the hereafter. Of those lucky enough to merit heaven, only martyrs or the truly holy might get there immediately after death. The rest detoured through purgatory, a place of temporary punishment, which could mean, however, thousands of years.
Punishment in hell was imagined to be painful and fiery. In The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, the entrance of hell was depicted as a gaping lion’s mouth opening its batlike lips tipped with talons. Through it, demons cast damned souls. Meanwhile, burning towers heat cauldrons into which mutilated bodies are pitched.
The Apocalypse dominated the imagination of what the end of time held in store for humanity. Illustrators of medieval manuscripts portrayed the Beast of the Apocalypse as having seven heads with ten horns and the body of a leopard with bear’s feet, which would make war on the faithful on earth. A False Prophet would order the people of the earth to worship this beast–and also cause great wonders, such as drawing fire from heaven.
V. San Zeno Astrolabe
For hundreds of years, an astrolabe hung in the Benedictine abbey of San Zeno in Verona. This extraordinary movable calendar is the only object of its type to survive from the Middle Ages—and is the only loan to the show. For every day of the year, the astrolabe’s three dials were rotated by hand to give a wide-ranging set of information: the date in Arabic numerals, the date according to the ancient Roman calendar, the feast to be celebrated, the zodiacal constellation, the hours of darkness and light, and the age of the moon. In doing so, it helped monks organize their devotional lives.
Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time can be seen at the Morgan Library & Museum January 26 through April 29, 2018