The Sistine Chapel is among the most well-known worship spaces in the world because, in the early 16th century, Michelangelo took his brush to the ceiling. However, as we saw in the news after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the chapel plays another important role in the life of the Catholic Church: it is the setting of an ancient ritual, where, after the death of a pope, the College of Cardinals determine the new head of the Catholic Church.
For centuries, a collection of manuscripts — prayer books, breviaries, and other worship publications — sat on the shelves of the Sistine Chapel’s sacristy, before, in the 18th century, Napoleon’s armies looted the Vatican, and the books were scattered. Forty of the works were taken to Spain where many ended up in the Biblioteca Capitular de Toledo — the cathedral library of Toledo — for safe-keeping.
That, in short, should have been the end of the history of these manuscripts. However, in the late 1990s, an Italian scholar, Dr. Elena DeLaurentiis, came upon a photograph of one of the works in the National Library in Madrid. She was struck by what any student of Rome may have noticed: one of the manuscripts contained a rendering of the seal of the Barbarini family, one of the great, powerful Roman Renaissance families which produced many popes and cardinals. The seal caused DeLaurentiis to wonder about the origins of the manuscript, which an inscription on the back of the photograph told her was housed at the cathedral library in Toledo.
That single photograph began 10 years of research into the lost Sistine Chapel manuscripts. DeLaurenttis managed to track down 40 of the works — both at the library in Toledo and throughout private collections — studying them extensively. The great art historical discovery that came from her work was the proof these manuscripts provided in showing that the practice of Italian miniature art continued through the 18th century, whereas it was previously believed that the practice died out a century earlier (as manuscripts gave way to printed books). The final fruit of DeLaurentiis’ work is the exhibition of the 40 codices, which will only be shown in twice: at the National Library in Madrid and the Meadows Museum.
In the dimly lit upper galleries of the Meadows Museum, the books are displayed in square cases, carefully opened to pages that show the most representative or masterful works of art in the manuscripts. The drawings are lovely little things, and the close juxtaposition of many images — often repetitive in theme, content, and form — allow you to trace historical trends, influences, and artistic developments, as well as glimpse the personalities and intentions of these nameless artists. In one image of the crucifixion, sharp black lines are used to delineate form, creating figures at the foot of the cross with hard, worn cheeks. A few feet away, a second book shows the same scene, but the attention to psychological expressions of the Mary and St. John is much keener. Another image betrays a high Gothic, northern European influence: elegant, delicate forms — soft facial features atop swooping, curved bodies.
The effect of the objects is twofold. There is the interest and power of the work itself, exquisitely rendered biblical scenes and other visual vignettes, their rich, inky color, the composition of image and text. But what is almost more immediately striking is the historical weight of the objects. One book was the breviary of Pope Urban VI, a 14th century pope. Another is a prayer book used by Dominican nuns. Still in remarkable condition considering their age, my imagination immediately ran to images of ancient hands fingering the pages, the worn leather covers fitting into palms of some dust-bound nun. Filled with formerly important names and seals of powerful, forgotten families, these once-sacred, once-precious objects were once hidden away in the private confines of one of the world’s most exclusive settings but now sit in plain view, in a museum gallery. They possess an almost ghostly presence, communicating with the great force a palpable sense of the fleeting passing of time.