On Aug. 11, Bulmash Exhibition Hall in Chalmers Library revealed its newest collection of artwork: medieval manuscripts. Titled “Otto Ege’s Portfolio: Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts,” the exhibit prompts the obvious question: Who is Otto Ege?
The infamous Otto Ege (1888-1951) was notorious even in his own time, gaining a reputation from repeated acts of biblioclasm. Ege ripped out individual pages of medieval manuscripts and rebound them into 40 portfolios, each containing 50 leaves taken from random manuscripts. He marketed these portfolios as a valuable resource for researching the history of the Bible, book illustration and paleography, repeatedly defending his actions with the justification that the portfolios made the manuscripts more accessible to the public, and sold them to museums and libraries. Even over 70 years later, Ege’s portfolios are held in many university libraries across the US and Canada.
Biblioclasm is a common method for illegally selling artwork. The deliberate destruction of a single work into multiple pieces makes it much more challenging to determine a piece’s origin, especially if a collection only contains a single part of the whole piece. The smuggling and illicit purchasing of artworks has been a highly debated topic in the art world for many years. The ethics of institutions acquiring such works are uncertain.
The exhibit displays a beautiful collection of manuscript leaves, fifteen pages in total. A manuscript is a text copied by hand rather than printed, and the exhibit’s manuscripts are in codex form, meaning that they are books made of pages bound between two boards. These manuscript pages were created using parchment, and were produced by soaking, scraping and stretching animal skin. Once the skin was prepared, a scribe wrote on the parchment with a quill and ink. Medieval manuscripts are usually religious texts, which were often made and copied by monasteries. Monks would sit in a cloister, an outdoor square in the middle of a church, to utilize natural light and copy or illustrate manuscripts. These included decoration and frequently used silver or gold leaf to accentuate capital letters. Illustrations were both decorative and functional, as they enhance the manuscript while also providing a religious story for illiterate worshippers. Manuscripts in the Middle Ages were essential tools of Christianity as they contained religious scriptures and stories.
Art historians have been able to date these leaves from the mid-12th century to the late-15th century by the distinctive lettering and notation styles, the colors of the lettering and the borders or decoration. The decoration of the pages in the Bulmash exhibit are remarkable. The most elaborate pages are embellished with different illustrations of foliage and animals. Recurring illustrations include ivy and holly leaves, as both were believed to have medicinal properties in the Middle Ages. The intricate designs of flowers wrapping around the text on a particular page shown in the exhibition hall demonstrates the attention to detail and indicates how much care is dedicated to each page of a manuscript. A particularly fun page toward the back of the exhibition includes images of “laughing carp,” where small drawings of fish representing Christ are sketched into the margins of every other line.
These details can also help determine the primary location of the manuscripts. The origins of these leaves include Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, France and possibly Spain. Since Chalmers’ exhibition only includes individual pages from a single random portfolio, dating and finding these leaves depends entirely on the pages’ content. These leaves contain excerpts from a multitude of texts such as hymnal texts, the Book of Hours, Bibles and many more. Almost all of these texts are used in liturgical processions: a ceremonial and communal movement from the back of the church to the altar.
Visitors can view these fascinating manuscripts in Chalmers through mid-October.