Exhibition brings together highlights from the Williams College Museum of Art and Chapin Library collections

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Exhibition brings together highlights from the Williams College Museum of Art and Chapin Library collections
The Passion of the Christ, After 1470. Oil on pine wood panel. Maker(s) not known by WCMA. After Hans Memling (ca. 1430–1494). Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS.- The Williams College Museum of Art is presenting Embodied Words: Reading in Medieval Christian Visual Culture, now on view. This thematic reinstallation of the museum’s medieval gallery brings together new and long-treasured objects from the WCMA collection with a selection of stunning illuminated manuscripts from Williams College’s Chapin Library.

In the Middle Ages, reading was thought to change you, physically and spiritually. Medieval people believed that words written and read, spoken and heard, could imprint on the brain, heart, and soul. The senses mediated the reception of these words. This ongoing exhibition demonstrates the embodied nature of reading in Christian Europe from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, with art from present-day Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. More than two dozen works on view include several books of hours—ornately-decorated personal guides for daily prayer—and an antiphonary, a large songbook whose letters are large enough to be seen by many and from a distance. Also on display are paintings and sculptures of saints holding books or texts. Saints, whether male or female, were often depicted with books to represent their understanding of scripture, and to signify their power and wealth.

Highlights of the exhibition include two gifts to WCMA from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation— Taddeo Gaddi’s 14th-century depiction of the prophet Isaiah holding a scroll, and a 15th-century Dutch panel painting depicting the Passion of Christ—as well as an illuminated Book of Hours (French; 1496) on loan from Williams College’s Chapin Library. Visitors to the exhibition are also encouraged to visit the Chapin Library, located on the fourth floor of Sawyer Library, across the street from the museum at 26 Hopkins Hall Drive, where they can see and hold manuscripts and printed books of hours.

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Sandoval, a specialist in medieval art and Curatorial Assistant at WCMA, drew inspiration for this reinterpretation of the collection in part from her 2018 doctoral thesis, “A Material Sign of Self: The Book as Metaphor and Representation in Fifteenth-Century Northern European Art.” In the Embodied Words introduction, Sandoval explains that during the Middle Ages, text was not confined to the pages of books but could be found everywhere in homes and public spaces: on paintings, architectural decoration, sculpture, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and bodies. How artists combined text and image informed the reading practices of medieval people.

Despite the pervasiveness of text, however, societal norms around gender, class, and education determined whose words could be read. Women were considered readers, whereas certain educated men of means could read, write, and create. The physical aspects of reading, including eye movement and speech, were thought to interconnect with spiritual ones, including memory, understanding, and the soul’s arousal.

“I hope that visitors are surprised by how much our reading practices mirror those from centuries ago in the West, and especially by how rich WCMA’s collection is of such minutely detailed, precious medieval artworks,” Sandoval said.

“Elizabeth’s reinterpretation of medieval art in WCMA’s collection through the lens of visual culture, and the fundamental role of the written and spoken word, has breathed new life into the gallery space,” states Lisa Dorin, Deputy Director for Curatorial Engagement. “We are delighted to collaborate with the Chapin Library to bring these remarkable objects together for museum visitors to appreciate in new ways.”

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