Published: December 2, 2008
One of the Morgan’s core strengths is its collection of historically and artistically significant bookbindings. Begun energetically by Pierpont Morgan himself before the turn of the Twentieth Century, the collection has grown to more than 1,000 volumes. It spans the ages †more than 1,600 years †and many regions of the globe.
“Protecting the Word: Bookbindings of the Morgan,” on view December 5⁍arch 29, will present a selection of key works from the collection. Highlights include a bejeweled Eighth Century binding used on the famous Lindau Gospels, a Seventh⁅ighth Century Coptic work and a Seventeenth Century English Bible and prayer book in stump work embroidery. Together, these and approximately 50 additional works in the exhibition, demonstrate the skill and artistry of bookbinding at its finest.
The Lindau Gospels, purchased by Pierpont Morgan in 1901, was the Morgan’s first truly significant acquisition in the field of medieval manuscripts. The value of the manuscript itself, however, is rivaled if not surpassed by its jeweled covers.
The lower cover is one of the most important of all medieval bindings. It is one of the three contemporary pieces of Carolingian goldsmithing ascribed to the so-called court school of Emperor Charles the Bald, grandson of Charlemagne. The upper cover is dominated by a large gold repousse figure of Christ crucified within a jeweled cross. Surrounding Christ are ten repousse figures in lower relief, all in mourning poses.
Another work the Coptic cover of the Gospels, is one of 60 Coptic bindings that Pierpont Morgan purchased in 1911, the year after they were found near the Monastery of St Michael in Egypt. Almost all works were found with their original bindings and constitute an essential collection for the study of Coptic bookbinding.
The Coptic Tracery Binding is regarded as the finest surviving Coptic binding. At its center is a cross surrounded by interlaced designs composed of two intertwined squares within a circle. All of these elements were cut from a single piece of red leather and sewn over gilt parchment.
Also on view is a Roger Bartlett mosaic binding, 1678. The Restoration, the period following the return of the English monarchy to the throne in 1660, was grand era of English bookbinding. One of Bartlett’s finest works is this Bible, bound in red goatskin with colored leather onlays in black, white and brown. The cottage-roof or split-pediment pattern is characteristic of his bindings.
The exhibition also includes Nineteenth and Twentieth Century works as well as contemporary bindings. Andre Suares’s Cirque is a modern example of a work that combines the artistry of bookbinding, illustrations and writing. The entire book, from its enormous scale to the quality of its paper and presswork, is a work of art in its own right.
The Morgan’s copy contains original illustrations by Georges Rouault in the form of acquatint †producing the effect of a drawing in watercolor or India ink †and woodcut illustration. The renowned French art dealer Ambrois Vollard published the Morgan’s version in 1938, commissioning Paul Bonet, a great innovator in French luxury bindings and among the best-known Twentieth Century French art binders, to design the cover. The binding is in a style Bonet called “a decor rayonnant” (in radiating decoration), to evoke the blaze of radiating circuit lights. The Morgan’s volume, bound in black goatskin with onlays of various colored calf and gold-tooled in a sunburst pattern, succeeds brilliantly in achieving the binder’s intention.
The Morgan Library & Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street. For information, 212-685-0008 or www.themorgan.org .
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