For the past year, I’ve been using the image at the left – Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus on their road trip to Egypt – as a metaphoric representation of my virtual road trip. The only reason I can do so is because the image has been made available for downloading and use under a Creative Commons license by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It might surprise you to learn that the Walters was an early adapter of open access platforms and continues to lead the way in making free, high quality images available online. But before we get to Walters the Digital, we have to start with Walters the Collector.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, railway tycoon William Thompson Walters (1819 – 1894) and his son Henry (1848 – 1931) amassed a collection of more than 20,000 art objects from around the world, eventually founding the museum that bears their family name. This from the Walters Art Museum website: “When William died in 1894, he bequeathed his collection to his son. Henry Walters would not only follow in his father’s footsteps in business—investing and managing railroads—but would carry on the family interest in art as well. He greatly expanded the scope of acquisitions, including his astounding purchase of the contents of a palace in Rome that contained over 1,700 pieces. This acquisition added Roman and Etruscan antiquities, early Italian paintings, and Renaissance and Baroque works of art to his holdings. Although he spent little time in his native city, Henry continued the work his father had begun by opening his collection to the public. In 1900, he bought three houses on Charles Street adjoining a property he already owned. Henry had the site transformed into a palazzo-like building, which opened to the public in 1909. He died in 1931, bequeathing the building and its contents to the mayor and city council of Baltimore ‘for the benefit of the public.’ The Walters Art Gallery, now the Walters Art Museum, opened its doors for the first time as a public institution on November 3, 1934.”
Along the way, the Walters men acquired a nearly-unparalleled collection of several hundred illuminated manuscripts, a collection that has grown through strategic acquisitions over the years, each one a masterpiece of its kind. Like his contemporary Pierpont Morgan, whose collection in New York is equally legendary, Walters had a taste for the finer things. The manuscript collection is full of extraordinary art. In looking through the digitized images, I found it nearly impossible to choose which examples to share with you, so I am including just a few of my personal favorites, one per century.
First up, a late eleventh/early twelfth-century Gospel book (W.17), possibly from northern Spain or France. St. Matthew is hard at work writing his Gospel, as an angel (his attribute) descends from the heavenly aperture above with a modelbook for him to copy. On the right, the rubric and first verse of the Gospel of St. Matthew, with the letters [Li] in “Liber” formed by the interlaced initials at the left. Two soldiers in armor inhabit the initial [L], one standing on the shoulders of the other to watch the Evangelist at work.
Here’s one I simply couldn’t let pass by. Manuscript W.29 records three treatises by Honorius of Autun and was illustrated by Gottschalk of Lambach, the scribe/artist who was the subject of my first book. Gottschalk didn’t write this one, but his illustrative work in W.29 is remarkable. Above, illustrating Honorius’ Commentary on the Song of Songs, the Daughter of Babylon rides beneath a blazing sun, escorted by Martyrs, Apostles, and Philosophers, her steeds helpfully identified below her footrest as “cameli.” The Daughter of Babylon represents the second of Honorius’ Four Epochs of the allegorical marriage described in the Song of Songs, the epoch “sub lege,” or “beneath the law.” The style is typical of Gottschalk, with his red and black penwork, distinctive long graceful fingers, and carefully articulated facial features.This initial comes from the early thirteenth-century Bolognese glory known as the Bentivoglio Bible, also known as manuscript W.151. Within the initial [B] of “Beatus vir” (the beginning of Psalm 1) we find Christ in the upper compartment holding an open book in his left hand, his right raised in blessing. King David – the supposed author of the Psalms – inhabits the lower compartment, strumming his harp.
As we make our way through the fourteenth century, things really start to get lush and golden. Here’s St. Peter enthroned (holding the key to Heaven in his left hand, blessing with his right) within the letter [N], in a late fourteenth-century antiphonal. In the lower register, an angel leads him from a Roman prison. The antiphonal was made for the use of the Chapel of Saint Nicholas of Bari in the church of St. Peter Major in Florence; hence, it is illustrated with eight scenes from the life of St. Peter, including his inverted crucifixion, below, within the letter [H].
The images above were all taken from manuscripts designed to be used by monks or in a church setting. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the rise of private devotion necessitated the creation of private prayerbooks, resulting in a proliferation of Books of Hours in the fifteenth century such as the manuscript illustrated below. This Book of Hours was written for the use of Troyes around the year 1470 and has the distinction of having once been owned by Wilfred Voynich, for whom the infamous Voynich Manuscript was named (Google it and you will quickly enter a dark and scary corner of the internet…but it’s worth the trip!). At left, an illustration of the Annunciation accompanies Matins for the Hours of the Virgin, the central text of a Book of Hours. The marginal miniatures illustrate other scenes from the life of the Virgin (clockwise from the upper right): being taught to read by her mother, St. Anne; being presented in the Temple; playing a stringed instrument; at prayer in a church; greeting the also-pregnant St. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. At right, St. Luke writes his Gospel, a quill in his right hand and a scraping implement in his left, copying from a model on a bookstand before him. His attribute, a bull, crouches at his feet, and a number of completed manuscripts are visible in the storage compartment below his writing desk. The two statues in the niches above, a man and a woman, may represent the initial commissioners of the manuscript.
Finally, we reach the apex of manuscript illumination in the early sixteenth century. Although I am somewhat partial to the penwork and charm of twelfth-century monastic manuscripts, these noble commissions of the early 1500s really take my breath away:
As users and admirers of medieval manuscripts, we have to step back and appreciate how extraordinary the digital collection at the Walters truly is. The Walters has always been a leader in cataloguing and access to medieval manuscripts: the multi-volume Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery authored by former curator Lilian M. C. Randall remains the gold standard in its breadth, depth, and attention to detail. Her successor, former curator William Noel, is perhaps best known for his work with the Archimedes Palimpsest (if you want a great introduction to the project and the importance of Open Access data, check out Will’s 2012 TED Talk). He applied the Open Access model used in that project to the Walters collection to establish a digital presence that includes not only the Walters website but a Flickr site as well, and, although he has since left to become the founding Director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, the Walters Art Museum remains committed to that model.
True Open Access is about a lot more than simply being able to freely download high-resolution un-watermarked JPGs, TIFFs, or PDFs. The Digital Walters provides several tiers of access points to these manuscripts: you can download the entire manuscript as a PDF; you can page through it online using a page-turner interface; you can download individual images; and, for those of you who really love your data raw, you can get behind the scenes at the Digital Walters, strip away the pretty interface, and interact with the data in a folder-file structure, pure and simple. Here, in this “behind-the-scenes” space, you can access the multiple layers that make up each image and dataset, see the data in its purist form, and download the raw data to do with as you please. This is the real thing. You might never have a good reason to interact with data this raw, but the fact that it’s there for the taking is unique and extraordinary.
Will Noel was honored last year by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for his work in advocating for open data, work he continues to pursue at what will be our next stop, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.