Illuminated manuscript (literally “hand written”) books are arguably the most characteristic objects of the European middle ages. They preserved a culture’s visions, adventures, religious rituals, and hard-won knowledge in books that were entirely handmade simply because there was no alternative. Contemporary artists, working in a culture dominated by mass-produced books and digitized content, are revisiting the challenges and joys of making a book by hand.
Elizabeth Moodey, assistant professor of history of art, and her HART 2288 seminar students this spring chose and researched the works in this exhibition—Book as Art: Medieval Necessity and Modern Invention. They investigated medieval and contemporary artists’ books to deduce common threads and broader stories. They also acquired new skills to share oral histories and digital resources.
The exhibition, on view in the lobby of the Heard Library through March 2017, was curated by students Anna Childress, Mary Helen Johns, BA’16, Ariana Parrish, Danielle Pettiti, Francesca Salvatore, BA’16, Sharon Si, Rebekah Smith, and Daniel Weitz, BA’16, as a collaboration between the library and the department of history of art.
Each of the themes examined—Music (Si), Travel (Childress), Memory (Smith), Word and Image: The Role and Impact of Script (Johns), “For the Glory of God” (Parrish), Medicine and The Evolving Understanding of the Body (Weitz), Materials—Making a Medieval Manuscript (Pettiti), and Women’s Experience (Salvatore)—brings together a medieval example and a selection of contemporary artists’ books, suggesting that medieval and modern artists share common concerns and draw on similar powers of invention.
“We began the course by asking, ‘What would be on our bookshelves if we had to write out all of our books? What do we gain with printing and digitization, and what do we lose?’” Moodey said. “My idea was to consider books from the Middle Ages, when all books were made by hand because there was no alternative, alongside the work of contemporary artists who have chosen what many people think of as an archaic medium. I wanted to understand the enduring appeal of the form and the inventiveness of the artists who are transforming it—to explore what it is about handmade books, especially in the face of widespread digitization, that still makes them worth the trouble.”
The student-curated immersion project is part of “The Campus Curates: Illumination, Enlightenment and Discovery,” an exhibition opening in phases this summer, according to Celia Walker, director of special projects at Vanderbilt Libraries.
“Discovery requires one to step off the path and take a few risks,” Walker said. “These projects celebrate the immersive work of students who stretched themselves by ‘wandering off the path’ to learn new things while curating exhibits.”
See Jane R. Snyder’s article about the exhibit in the most recent Nashville Arts Magazine (June 2016).
Sharon Si, sophomore (above) and Daniel Weitz, BA’16, (below) describe the themes they examined at the April 25 exhibition opening in the lobby of the Heard Library.