Belles Heures

March 27, 2010

Yesterday evening, I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

I find it hard not to confuse this manuscript with the perhaps more famous, Très Riches Heures, which is known for its beautiful scenes illustrating the progression of the seasons on a medieval estate.  This manuscript, also a prayer book, features illuminations of The Passion, St. Jerome, and St. Catherine, who refused to be broken, on the wheel or otherwise.

The manuscript has been disassembled for restoration, and before putting it back together, it is being exhibited as individual pages, so you can see both sides in upright glass holders – magnifying glasses are available!  Soon, it will return to its bound state, and visitors will be able to view only two pages, chosen by the curator, at time.

Aside from the dazzling ornamentation of the pages, the pictures are alternately dramatic, poignant, and even humorous.  Viewing them all is totally exhausting, and of course, they were not meant to be viewed this way at all.  The books were meditative/prayer aids, intended to be read one page at a time, a few each day, year after year.

Among my favorite images, with links:

A lovely image showing a crescent moon, and an almost 3-D effect of some angels in reddish hues.

St. Jerome tempted by some dancing girls.

A fanatical Christian, accosted by a loose woman who fondles his thigh.  Rather than be seduced, he bites off his tongue so that the pain will drive away temptation.

St. Jerome listening to a scholar discourse on the classics.  Jerome was torn by his love of Greek and Latin literature and its conflicts with his Christian faith.

St. Jerome is tricked by his colleagues into wearing a woman’s dress.  He is so absorbed in meditation, he puts it on without realizing that his fellow monks have switched his clothing.

There is also a current exhibit of a series of small statues in alabaster depicting a procession of mourners at the funerals of two Burgundian noblemen, the same ones who commissioned the books of hours, I believe.  This figures are placed around the base of two elaborate raised platforms, inside a series of ornately carved gothic niches.

They are displayed in two parallel rows on a simple base in the Metropolitan while their home museum in France is restored.  This means that they are visible completely in the round.  They display a wide variety of costumes and physical manifestations of their grief, all with great realism.  You can view each figure at this link.  The figures have been digitally scanned in the round, so you can actually rotate each virtual figure in your web brower – fantastic!

After leaving the museum, I took a bus downtown to Penn Station, and stopped to look at the new pedestrian mall that has taken over Broadway around 34th street.  Even on a cold night, it is wonderful.  To stand in the middle of a street in Manhattan, with the view that affords, and not have to dodge traffic!

A view of a mysterious moon near the Deco spire of the Empire State Building from the Broadway mall.

Nowadays, we have our own form of illuminations, as followers of Walter Benjamin might say.  A store window advertisement got a felicitous double effect from the reflection in the back of a chromium chair.  And a snap of a hard working artist, creating the dazzling festivals of desire along the street scape.

T0urists doing what they do, recording their ephemeral presence in my phenomenal world.

City as Man’s Fate, Planet of Slums

September 28, 2007


I’ve been reading an old book by Wolf Schneider, Babylon is Everywhere: The City as Man’s Fate. I read it first when I was a teenager, and it fired my imagination with images of urban splendor and excitement, both historical and contemporary. Later, I traveled a bit, and my priority was to see cities, to walk their streets, visit the museums, gaze at the monuments, drift in the currents of their surging crowds. I loved it. Cities, civilization, human history.

Some of the cities I eventually visited had a lot of slums: Delhi, La Paz…, Bombay. My appreciation for the accomplishments of western sanitary engineering (drainage) grew apace, and one of the enduring sensation-memories of my stay in India is the foul smell of human excrement, everywhere. Now I am reading another great book, Planet of Slums, about the large portion of urban humanity that lives in these filthy, dangerous, polluted, rickety shantytowns, slums, favellas, bustees, or whatever they are called locally. The picture is depressing. Human life reduced to a basic struggle for survival, but not in the wild, in the man-made environment of the peripheral city.

Interesting that both of these books agree on one point, the city is man’s fate! In Planet of Slums, there is a remark that the city holds the solution to the global environmental crisis, as cities are vastly more efficient in their use of energy and space than rural areas, and they provide for human interaction beyond “commoditized leisure consumption.” Well, I agree completely. As one colleague of mine remarked a while ago, “farming is the most environmentally destructive activity invented by man.” So much for “back to the land,” recreating the garden, and the typical American anti-urban, Jefforsonian fantasy of agricultural utopia. Let’s all move to the city – see you there!