Part of a visual pilgrimage toward Easter, this piece is the first in a series of spiritual meditations by Griffin Oleynick, who will visit a different art gallery each week through the season of Lent. Check back February 25 for the next installment, when Griffin visits the Whitney Museum.
Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time, on view at The Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, January 26 through April 29, 2018
The arrival of Lent alerts us that something is about to change. The short, somber days of winter give way to the color and extended sunlight of spring, as the liturgy begins to incorporate dramatic new symbols like ashes, palms, and burning candles. The most medieval of the seasons of the Church’s liturgical year, Lent is a time of prayer and spiritual growth, when we are called, through practices like lectio divina (the meditative way of reading scripture formalized by monks in the middle ages) to cultivate a heightened awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Steeped in so much natural and liturgical beauty, we may indeed find ourselves drawn to yet another way of experiencing God that flourished in the middle ages: visio divina, or divine seeing, a method of contemplative prayer in which the shapes, colors, and patterns of visual art become the starting point for the journey of the soul as it rises to God.
Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time, a new exhibition on view through the end of April 2018 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, happily coincides with the beginning of Lent and presents a stunning range of richly decorated, thought-provoking objects, many of which were originally created to serve as visual aids to prayer. Organized into four sections addressing different aspects of the medieval concept of time (the medieval calendar, liturgical time, historical time, and time beyond time, or the afterlife) and capped by the display of a monumental wooden astrolabe from the monastery of San Zeno in Verona, Italy, the exhibit not only draws out the suggestive similarities and stark differences between the middle ages and our own modern era, but also gives us the tools to enter knowingly into the sacralized consciousness of the medieval worldview. Lavishly illuminated calendars, lectionaries, choir books, bibles, chronicles, scrolls, books of hours, and even a few papal indulgences, drawn from all across medieval Europe, invite us to slow down, to pause and ponder during these weeks of Lent, as we listen prayerfully for the still-small voice that even today invites us into renewed relationship.
Now and Forever present a different, and more accurate, vision of the middle ages than the one we’re familiar with. The centuries between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the flowering of the Renaissance were hardly a culturally “dark” and intellectually ignorant time, concerned merely with matters of faith and uninterested in the workings of the secular world. Instead, the exhibit demonstrates the high level of sophistication attained by the medievals, especially in their complex methods for measuring and regulating time. The medieval calendar itself, displayed in the first section of the exhibit, appears as an elaborate two-dimensional matrix, a reproducible grid whose coordinates track the days, weeks, and months (along with their corresponding feasts and religious celebrations) just as they record the phases of the moon, the position of the sun, and the motions of the stars.
A singularly striking feature of the medieval calendar is the recurring juxtaposition of two cycles of images keyed to the months of the year: the Labors of the Months and the Signs of the Zodiac. These illustrations each depict a different form of fruitful human activity situated prominently on the page beside a corresponding constellation. We thus observe small, delicately rendered workers threshing wheat in August, harvesting grapes in September, and feeding pigs in November, alongside the signs of Virgo, Libra, and Sagittarius. The implication is that time itself creates a kind of enduring relationship between two disparate categories of events: the small, habitual occupations of human life on the one hand, and the wondrous motions of the vast celestial bodies on the other.