When Excellence Was King

When Excellence Was King

We who live in the Kindle age have a very difficult time understanding the devotion and the perseverance required to create one beautiful book. Yet for many centuries, this is what humble men of God sequestered away in monasteries did, and we are the beneficiaries of their painstaking devotion to creating great works of art.

Terry Glaspey, in the second entry in his book, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know, introduces the reader to one of the most beautiful books ever created, an illuminated manuscript of the Latin Gospels dating from the 500’s. Its name? The Book of Kells. For more details on the manuscript, I highly recommend you purchase Terry Glaspey’s book.  For discussion purposes, I’d like to propose some thoughts inspired by Mr. Glaspey’s commentary.

*Each manuscript was the work of more than one monk. Collaboration produced excellence. Some things never change. For an absolutely excellent modern look at collaboration between some of the best-known collaborators of our day, The Inklings, see Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep or her newest book on the same subject, Bandersnatch. Both are excellent. And if you are an artist looking for people to collaborate with to help you realize your dreams, keep your eyes on these guys. They’re beta testing now. You can sign up to be on their wait list. I did.

*The intricacy of the monks work meant there was mystery involved. The longer one looks at one of these illuminated texts, the more one sees. All the beauty and all the intricacy is not apparent at first glance. There is a hiddenness to beauty that requires time and effort to search it out.

*The monks who created these beautiful manuscripts synthesized the artwork of their place and time with Christianity in a way that diminished neither. In fact, their synthesis enhanced both, giving us works of art that have not seen equals since their time and place in history. There is a right way and a wrong way to synthesize. The early monks found the right way.

*Creation of illuminated manuscripts was labor intensive. Each page took time and effort and dedication and experience. There is a lesson to be learned for us in the fast-and-furious modern era. All exceptional creations take time. And the very best works of art we  produce will take time and effort and dedication and experience. There are no shortcuts to excellence.

*There’s nothing quite like viewing these detailed masterpieces personally. On the other side of the pond, the British Library holds one of the largest collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world and their digital, online gallery of their collections is a treasure trove of beauty. If you prefer a smaller venue and happen to be visiting Cambridge anytime this year, the Fitzwilliam has an excellent exhibit running. But if you (like me) can’t afford a trip across the pond this year, visit the Fitzwilliam’s digital exhibit, Illuminated Manuscripts in the Making .  Or if you happen to be in Los Angeles, The Getty Center in Southern California is a marvelous place to view illuminated manuscripts. They almost always have an illuminated manuscript display. The current exhibit is “Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts” and it runs through September 25, 2016. On the Eastern shore, The New York Public Library has a pretty amazing collection of searchable digital illuminated manuscripts to view.  And if you take a public tour (offered on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m.) at an obscure little museum housed within the Cherokee Ranch Castle in Sedalia, CO, you can view a desk a monk would have stood at to create his work of art. (I include the last just in case you think we Colorado folk have no culture. By the way, the views during this tour will make your heart sing. Cost: $15)

Beauty enriches the soul. It provides a standard by which we can measure our lives. It forms us and equips us to reason better than we would have had we not been exposed to it before we were able to reason (see Lewis’s Abolition of Man). It is not an optional add-on. It is what will ultimately save the world.