Friday, November 27, 2009

Holy Books

At the moment, there's a photo exhibition at the Pavillion Populaire by a photographer I've never heard of, but who is, apparently, a grand fromage in France. I went and discovered that there's one part that's not there, and will open at the former St. Ann's church next week, so in the interest of keeping you all informed about the other cultural amenities here I went to the other big-deal show today (there's also something at the Musée Fabre, but it's more French landscape painting from the 19th century, and no way I'm going to put down precious money for that).

And the moral of this one is, pay attention. To be fair, there was a lot of information missing that I only picked up there, but I did expect more out of a show called The Library of the Great Seminary of Montpellier. After all, this town's been a center of all manner of studies for over a thousand years, and I'm a huge fan of illuminated manuscripts and almost decided to make that my profession when I was in college. Might have, too, if anyone at the damn place had known what I was talking about.

But here's the deal: it wasn't until 1563 that the Council of Trent said that every diocese in France should have a seminary, and the local bishop didn't get around to asking that one be established here until 1659, and it wasn't until 1690 that the thing got set up and running. So, no illuminated manuscripts here. Then, in 1790, the Revolution seized the thing and began selling off the good stuff. Napoleon cooled things out in 1807, and in 1972, probably in response to fewer and fewer young men wanting to become priests, the seminaries were regrouped into inter-diocesial seminaries. In 1999, 20,000 books were donated to the Médiathèque Émile Zola, our big library, and now that they've got them sorted out, they decided to show the best stuff they have.

And their best stuff I didn't find all that interesting. While it's true that not much on view is as gaudy and vulgar as the image of Joan of Arc atop this post (yeah, that's her, with dark hair, which is probably how people down here saw her; not everyone thinks she looked like Milla Jovovitch, you know), not much of it is of interest to those not interested in ecclesiastical history or libraries. To me, the best stuff was the graphics: there's a huge family tree with Adam and Eve at the bottom (who knew: they had a third son, Seth) and branching upwards to the sky; a huge double-spread of two hearts so you can tell the difference between the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sacred Heart of Mary (Jesus: wrapped in thorns, small lesion in lower left-hand side, big cross coming out of aorta. Mary: tiny sword stabbing her heart. Both hearts anatomically correct.); and a bunch of utterly bizarre engravings from a book called Via Vitae Æternae by one Boèce de Bolswert of Antwerp, small, cramped, and notable for the letters on just about every detail. In some, saints pray, and their prayers are shown as a big zap going into the clouds from their hands (not their hearts?), where the Holy Trinity awaits. In another, the zap goes the other way, with people milling around in a field dressed in robes getting zapped by heavenly beings. In another, two painters are painting a bunch of people, and one's being dragged away by a demon while the other isn't. A nice elderly man who obviously was part of curating the show came over when he saw me taking notes and offered to explain anything I needed, but de Bolswert, I figured, would not be explicable in any terms I knew in English or French.

There's a nice thick book of the exhibition on thick high-quality paper you can take with you, and a screen showing slides of numerous illustrated books (they seemed to be showing military architecture while I was standing in front of it), but all this show really taught me was that by the time the Montpellier Seminary started amassing a collection, Catholicism had reached a degree of complexity that the stuff I'd taught myself while trying to deal with those illuminated manuscripts was utterly useless. Still, if you find yourself in the 'hood on a rainy afternoon, it's a pleasant half-hour's diversion.

(La Bibliothèque du grand séminaire de Montpellier, open daily until December 30, entrance free, see website for times. Médiathèque centrale d'Agglomeration Émile Zola, Place de l'Europe, Antigone, 34000 Montpellier).

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