Excavation #7: The Book of Hours

In Pittsburgh on June 8, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Excavation series is excerpted from my MFA thesis, entitled Ruins. These short chapters deal with youthful imagination and an increasing desire to explore the world. Photograph of original deed to Castle Isenberg (then spelled “Ysenberg”).

Dr. Hearn sat at the head of the class, and he smiled his bullfrog smile. He was a bulbous and ugly man—his face pockmarked, his hands ruddy with veins. But I loved that he sat at a students’ desk like the rest of us. I loved his enthusiasm for cathedral arches and the carved faces that decorated doorways. And when he slipped his fingers into cloth gloves and pressed his hands on the cover of the Manuscript, I loved this astonishing gift—a 14th century Book of Hours.

This is very rare,” Dr. Hearn said, holding the book aloft. “European libraries are full of medieval books. You can visit any monastery and see thousands of volumes. But monks don’t like to part with their literature, so you don’t see many Books of Hours in North America.”

I watched in horror as Dr. Hearn held one leather cover, then let the rest of the manuscript flop open. The spine arced and the vellum pages fanned out. I nearly leapt from my desk, just to grab the book’s other half and keep the spine from breaking. But Dr. Hearn kept talking, as if this was a perfectly respectful way to treat a 700-year-old masterpiece.

“As you can see, these books were very sturdy,” he said. “The paper is made from dried calf-skin. The cover is composed of treated leather. The pages are hand-sewn together. We often forget how much labor was put into such books. We’re used to paperbacks and hardcovers. Even the best books produced today might last one or two centuries. But these were crafted to stand the test of time.” He held the book out in both palms, like a platter. “Still, be gentle.”

Our small class laughed. I felt out of place here, in the Frick Building. I’d been bold and decided to take an Art & Architecture class. Bolder still: It was an Honors-level lecture. Many of my peers were graduate and doctoral students. At the very least, they had taken semesters of architecture courses, and they could easily distinguish Doric from Ionic columns, naves from choirs, Lancet from Equilateral arches. These were the future Experts in Their Field. What was this class to them but another prerequisite?

Still, I waited breathlessly for the Book of Hours. I might be an amateur, but I understood old books. It passed from hand to hand, handled with reverent care, as if the book were composed not of bovine paper but of brittle ash. When it reached me, I cradled it paternally. I was instantly self-conscious of my oily fingers—recently washed, yes, but surely porous with bodily grease. I gazed at the illustrations, turned them so bashfully that I lost my grip, and the page shot back, stood straight in the air.

Of all the forts and castles and churches I’d seen, nothing compared to this—to touch, with my naked forefinger, the calligraphic letters that a monk had once inked. Each “O” was different from the others; each “B” had darker and lighter segments, so that I could sense the varying pressure of pen on page. The paper itself was tough and salty; not only did it seem as strong as the animal it came from, but each sheet warped with the weight of its paint. Gold lines shimmered between blue curlicues, and entire portraits—of farmers, of nobles, of Christ—rested inside their painted frames.

This was an unspeakable feeling: to see a tiny landscape of fields, even the furrows painted in microscopic detail, because that is what the painter saw from his abbey windows. When that nameless monk looked out, he witnessed his world; and when he toiled in his scriptorium, he mixed the colors and shaped the patterns he knew. The book closed, and for generations it stood on a shelf, waiting for someone to witness the same vision. As if being reminded. Or illuminated.


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