Keeping track of time was important long before Western civilization had clocks, which first appeared around 1300. The exhibition Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time at the Morgan Library & Museum provides a compelling reason to look up from your digital device and visit. This comprehensive, intelligently curated exhibit which explores the medieval world’s approach to the passage of time is a total delight and not just because of how well it times out—the show occupies only one large gallery (no need for oxygen or a lengthy time-out, as can be true at some museums).
August: Reaping Wheat, from the Da Costa Hours, Belgium, Ghent, ca. 1515, illuminated by Simon Bening. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.399, fol. 9v, purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1910. Image courtesy of Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz/Austria.
All the items on display—55 calendars, Bibles, chronicles, histories, and a 60-foot genealogical scroll—are part of the Morgan’s rich holdings, with the exception of a wonderful large wooden astrolabe circa 1455, originally from the Benedictine Abby of Saint Zeno in Verona, Italy. This item, the only loan in the exhibit, is also the only item of its kind to survive the passage of time.
San Zeno Astrolabe, Italy, Verona, ca. 1455, illuminated for the Abbey of San Zeno by an anonymous Lombard artist, courtesy of Michael Stone, Map & Atlas Museum of La Jolla
In addition to the astrolabe, the other four sections of the Morgan show deal with the medieval calendar, liturgical time, historical time, and the hereafter (“time after time.”). During the medieval period, the day was divided into a fixed set of hours, while the year was made up of two overlapping systems of annual holy feasts. It’s interesting to note that many concepts like feast days continue to influence us in the twenty-first century; for instance, our association of drinking beer with St. Patrick’s Day and singing carols for Christmas.
The huge scroll in a specially built case in the center of the exhibit is open to the Fall of Troy. According to medieval tradition, ancient Troy marked the start of European civil history when the defeated but heroic Trojans sailed off to found such major cities as Paris, London, and Rome. If you want to see more of this scroll, step into the outer room and play with the iPads to see the entirety and to enlarge certain aspects.
Hell, “Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” in Latin, The Netherlands, Utrecht, ca. 1440, illuminated for Catherine of Cleves, duchess of Guelders, by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.917/945, III, fol. 168v. Purchased on the Belle da Costa Greene Fund and through the generosity of the Fellows, 1963 and 1970. Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2017.
People in the Middle Ages felt that earthly time was fleeting in comparison to the endlessness of the hereafter. The Time after Time section of the show has some interesting works depicting purgatory and limbo, such as a 15th-century Book of Hours showing King David and Adam and Eve behind bars and The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, in which the entrance to hell is shown as a gaping lion’s mouth into which demons cast damned souls. Both are graphic, albeit a bit grisly, and very striking.
Inspired by this exhibit, the Morgan is offering related concerts, lectures, gallery talks, and a calendar design workshop for families. Throughout the year there are many other concerts, films, talks, and workshops, some for adults only and others for families.
While at the Morgan, you can pause for a bite to eat and a drink at the lobby café or enjoy a terrific meal at the more formal Morgan Dining Room. The museum gift shop has a wide selection of cards, jewelry, wearables, items for the home, fun stuff for kids, and books, with many items inspired by past and current exhibitions.
There are always several exhibitions on view and, whenever the Museum is open, you can visit Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 Library, the historic heart of the museum and a real treat made even more so with its 2010 multimillion dollar restoration. The Library boasts floor-to-ceiling shelves of books, a gorgeous painted ceiling, and a look into Morgan’s expansive, public persona.
Now and Forever: The Medieval Art of Time runs at The Morgan now through April 29, 2018. For more information, vist themorgan.org.