Illuminations invoke Easter mystery

Published April 1, 1999

Detail from the Ascension by Simon Marmion, Gheraert Heronbout, Alexander Bening attrib., The Blessed Virgin Mary’s Book of Hours, Naples 1483-98

THIS IS NOT, as the title might suggest, a late review of a book for the Christmas market.

It could just as appropriately be called an “Easter” book, because it is the story of our redemption from creation to our final destiny of eternal life told through illuminated medieval manuscripts and equally illuminated contemporary commentary.

It also shows, in its 96 pages, why we are preparing celebrate the millennium: “AD means anno domini, the year of our Lord, and that Lord, again, is Christ.”

Sister Wendy Beckett, best known for her television art series on PBS, again leaves her contemplative hermitage in England to present this collection of full-colour images from illuminated missals and prayerbooks from the Vatican and Italian State libraries. Many have not been seen for centuries.

Her gift for explaining paintings not only as an art form but also for their spiritual and theological insights gives this book a contemporary freshness and significance.

She begins the story by looking at events before the birth of Jesus: creation, the garden of Eden and human disobedience, the Annunciation, the Visitation – all leading to the Nativity story itself, the stable, the shepherds, the magi. She offers a poignant comment on the escape of Joseph and Mary with Jesus to Egypt and Herod’s subsequent slaughter of innocent boy babies: “Jesus, who is to end his life by dying for others, begins it by having others die for him.”

The story continues with episodes from Jesus’s time on earth – the feeding of the multitudes, Peter walking on water; then, the last supper, the Judas kiss, Peter’s denial and repentance. Finally, she reflects on the meaning of the crucifixion, resurrection, and Ascension: “Jesus came down from heaven to take us back with him. Whether we consciously accept this or not it is so.” The last picture is an artist’s glimpse of heaven and the communion of saints set in an earthly frame.

[pullquote]The monks and nuns who so painstakingly copied these manuscripts and embellished them so richly between about the sixth and 15th centuries knew there are different ways to praise God in their art.Some illustrations are simply stark, while others are provocative and often humorous. It is also possible to trace the development of technique through the centuries.

The over all effect of the illumination is stunning. Combined with the text the whole book is a powerful reminder that if Easter hadn’t happened, nobody today would pay the slightest attention to Christmas.

William Portman is book review editor for the Anglican Journal.


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