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Artifacts of church and state

Medieval wonders unscroll at BC

CHESTNUT HILL -- In the spring of 2004, a dozen curators and historians visited the Boston Public Library's Copley Square branch to meet with Earle Havens, the library's curator of manuscripts. Among many lavishly decorated texts that Havens showed them was a 15th-century document written in medieval French.

''When we unrolled the scroll, everyone pounced on it because nobody knew what it was," recalls Nancy Netzer, director of Boston College's McMullen Museum of Art and a medieval specialist who led the team of BC scholars.

The 33-foot-long text, illustrated by 57 tiny scenes, is a history of the world from Genesis to 1380. Not publicly exhibited since the library acquired it more than a century ago, it is the centerpiece and greatest wonder of ''Secular/Sacred," an exhibit of wonders from the 11th to 16th centuries at the McMullen Museum through June 4. The show brings together more than 90 works from the Boston Public Library and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the majority of them rarely, if ever, shown.

The scroll, given the name ''La Chronique Universelle," is one of 32 hand-painted copies known to exist. ''This is by far the most completely illustrated and one of the earliest versions of this text," Netzer says. Walking the length of the grand case it is displayed in is like traveling through time. Centuries ago people may have unrolled it to see God creating the world, Adam and Eve, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, and King David. After the burning of Troy, the founding of Rome, and Alexander the Great, Jesus arrives.

By this point the text has been divided into four columns, with biblical tales and papal histories on the left, the decline of the Roman empire and rise of France and Britain on the right. The Franks drive out the Romans, King Arthur battles, Charlemagne makes an appearance. Religious and secular history mix fluidly, establishing connections between Adam and Eve and French and English kings, declaring their divine right to rule.

These last years are what the BC exhibit so magnificently documents. If you dream of rummaging through the Hogwarts library or the archives of Middle Earth, this is the show for you. It was a time of cathedrals and castles, the scruffy middle era between the crumbling of the Roman empire and the celebrated rebirth of European culture during the Renaissance. It was an era when the Roman Catholic Church vied with ascendant feudal kings for sacred and secular dominion.

Exhibition organizers aim to point out the blurry divisions between the secular and sacred in medieval works. But unless you're a specialist, you'll likely brush such questions aside to get straight to examining these treasures. Organizers have arranged things by subject and type -- beasts, ministers and magistrates, the Virgin Mary, sacraments, devotional books, worldly goods -- to elucidate the development of European styles.

A 13th- or 14th-century metal pitcher used for washing hands is shaped to depict a wiry, stylized Samson, as in the Old Testament tale, leaping upon a lion's back, twisting its neck, and prying open its jaws. A stunning, tiny 14th-century silver box pendant honors St. Margaret and St. Catherine. Inside, it probably once contained images of Jesus to match the inscription ''Hail holy face of Christ" on the outside.

A 15th-century alabaster carving sensitively describes an angel landing before the Virgin Mary to announce that she will bear a boy who would be called the son of God. And a sumptuous wool and silk tapestry from the late 15th or early 16th century shows a smiling Narcissus (suffering from the kind of vanity that requires him to emblazon his name on his pants leg) entranced by his sober reflection in a fountain amid a flowering woodland full of birds and small beasts.

As great as these are, the real stars here are the manuscripts and books. Look closely; it's easy to miss the tiny details whose chromatic punch was protected from damaging sunlight between closed book pages. A 1521 English book is printed from exquisitely carved woodcuts illustrating ''The Passyon of Our Lorde." (Try reading the old English.) Woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach the Elder compare the pope (as Antichrist!) unfavorably with the evangelism and trials of Christ in a 1521 tome that supported Martin Luther's attacks on corruption in the church -- a glimpse of the feud that led to the Protestant Reformation.

Fourteen baseball-card-size paintings by Simon Bening, cut from an early 15th-century prayer book, render Christ's life and execution in vivid color. And the embossed silver cover of an Armenian ''Ritual" book from about 1698, with clasps shaped like little hands, depicts the prophet Isaiah standing before God and surrounded by Old Testament figures framed in arcades. An angel reaches down with tongs to press a hot coal against his lips, purifying them.

This book stands at the end of the medieval era, looking backward, not quite ready for the start of our modern age of science and humanism and the ''discovery" of new worlds outside Europe. Much medieval art reveals artists stretching to make sense of a confounding world, both material and spiritual. To our eyes it seems all cockeyed kings and lions, babies that look like aliens, and bent drapery. Medieval artists often get anatomy wrong and perspective wrong -- you name it, they get it wrong --but they get it wrong in fabulous ways. And in doing so they reveal the curious workings of human minds.

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