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Oct 122008
 

by Gary Schwartz

It is not too late to commemorate the 400th anniversary, earlier this year, of one of the great inter-civilizational gestures of early modern times. On January 3rd, 1608, a delegation of Discalced Carmelite monks, arriving in Isfahan from Rome via Kraków, presented to the Moslem Shah Abbas I one of the most precious treasures of medieval European Christianity. It was an illuminated manuscript with hundreds of large miniatures of scenes and stories from the Pentateuch and the books of Judges and Kings.


The Murder of Absalom, loose sheet from the Morgan Picture Bible. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

There is no running text, only concise marginal captions explaining the scenes. The manuscript was painted in the mid-13th century in France and provided with Latin captions about 1400. Such was the quality of the materials and artistry, the magnificence and extent of the presentation, the sheer glamour of the book, that it was assumed to have been a royal commission. It is sometimes called the Picture Bible of Louis IX, but since its purchase in 1916 by J. Pierpont Morgan it is referred to as the Morgan Picture Bible. It is preserved in the Morgan Library in New York.

The donor of this royal gift was the bishop of Kraków, Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski (1548-1608). The gift formed part of diplomatic, military, commercial and religious exchanges between Persia and several Western countries that were being pursued sporadically from several sides since Abbas succeeded to the Safavid throne in 1587. The main interest of the shah was in gaining Western military support in his war against the Ottoman Empire. What the western countries wanted in the first place was the large-scale import of Persian silk. But religion could never be forgotten when Christians dealt with Muslims.

Shah Abbas played skillfully on the fondest hopes of his Christian discussion partners by hinting that he might convert to Christianity. However insincere this gambit may have been, even a remote possibility called for an encouraging gift of appropriately royal magnitude. And so it happened that a Christian primate sent to a Persian king what was probably the single most costly work of art ever to leave Christendom for the east. (Can you imagine what the world would be like if this had worked? If since 1608 the rulers of Persia and their subjects had been Christians?)

By the account of the Carmelites, Shah Abbas was entranced by the book. He spent a long time examining it and ordered that it be provided with captions in Persian for his better understanding. If only for the thrill of getting into his mind as he contemplated 2000-year-old events from Jewish history that took place closer to his land and world than those of the European Christians who painted them, a celebration of that powerful cross-cultural moment would seem to be in place.

Before we go off to Kraków and Isfahan, though (cities with the most stunning central squares I know – this would be a splendid treat), there are other matters to be taken into consideration, which might well give you pause, as they do me. To Pope Clement VIII, who sent the Carmelites on their mission to the King of Kings, as to Bishop Bernard, the gift was an attractive picture-book version of Holy Writ. They will have expected Shah Abbas, as he went from image to image, to become convinced of the patent truth of Scripture. To the art historian Marianna Shreve Simpson the value of the gift lay primarily in its aesthetic qualities. She has written a sensitive evocation of what Abbas, as a major patron and connoisseur of Islamic arts, would have experienced when admiring the French miniatures.

To these views there now must be added that of Laura Hollengreen, who has discovered another distinction of the Morgan Picture Bible. She points out that the illuminators or patrons of the manuscript focused on the goriest details of the bloodiest stories in a book that provided them with all the violence their hearts desired. Rape, murder, execution, massacres, warfare, beheadments, disembowelments are all thankful grist for the miniaturists’ mill, to a degree, according to Hollengreen, unparalleled in manuscript painting.


The Murder of Absalom, loose sheet from the Morgan Picture Bible. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum

This take on the Morgan Picture Bible renders less apocryphal a rumor about Shah Abbas and the Bible that until now has seemed too weird to be true. Here is the anodyne version of the story as told on the website of the Getty Museum: “The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York now owns the book, which is missing a number of folios including the Getty Museum’s leaf. Who removed leaves from the book and for what reason? The answer may lie with the Shah. All of the missing leaves come from the part of the book that tells the story of Absalom’s defiance of his father, King David. Scholars have suggested that Shah Abbas did not approve of that story and may have had the leaves cut out.”

Other scholars have suggested that Abbas approved all too well of the story and that he had the leaves cut out not as a negative but positive model for responsible shahship. The circumstances they cite are not trivial. Like David, Abbas too had more than one son. One of them was the oldest son of a legitimate wife and therefore the crown prince, Safi Mirza. The Wikipedia entry on Shah Abbas reports the fate of Safi Mirza thus: “Afraid of a coup by his family (as he had done to his father), he locked them up in palaces in order to keep them without knowledge of the outside world. This resulted in weak successors. He killed his eldest son, Safi Mirza, leaving his throne to his grandson Safi. It is believed that Safi Mirza was killed [in February 1615] because the Shah had learned the story of … Absalom who rebelled against his own father as depicted in the illustrations of the Morgan Crusader’s Bible which was sent to him as a gift by Cardinal Maciejowski.”

What Abbas learned from his Picture Bible, in this interpretation, is that it is wiser for a king to anticipate palace intrigues than to wait until his heirs conspire against him. He did King David one better by killing his oldest son before he revolted against his father. Is this the kind of behavior that we wish to encourage with anniversary celebrations?

When the Safavid shahs had derived as much benefit from the manuscript as they needed, they sold it or gave it away. In the 18th century it was in the hands of Persian Jews, who provided the illuminations with inscriptions in Judaeo-Persian. In addition to being a Christian visual interpretation (ca. 1250) of a Jewish text (ca. 500 B.C), the Morgan Picture Bible also bears the marks of intense interventions on the part of Catholic scholars (ca. 1400, when Roman monks wrote the Latin captions), a Catholic primate (1604, the year when Maciejowski wrote his dedicatory inscription for Abbas), the Safavid royal court (1608) and Persian Jews (18th century). However different their motivations, they all contributed to the creation of a talismanic object in which their civilizations share more than space on a page alone. How nice it would have been 400 years after the presentation of the great gift, to be able to look back to it as the beginning of a new age of mutual respect between faiths and civilizations. How sad that we can’t.

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See the essays by Marianna Shreve Simpson in The Book of Kings: Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible, edited by William Noel and Daniel Weiss in connection with an exhibition in the Walters Art Gallery in 2002, and in Between the Picture and the Word: Manuscript Studies from the Index of Christian Art, edited by Colum Hourihane on the occasion of another exhibition on the manuscript in 2005. Laura Hollengreen’s essay appeared in the latter volume.

Facsimiles of the manuscript can be found here and here.
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In Robert Altman’s last, lovely film, A Prairie Home Companion, an old-time radio performer dies in the dressing room during the broadcast of a country music program. When people on the show press the m.c., Garrison Keillor, to commemorate him on the air, he answers, “We don’t do memorials. At my age, if I did memorials I wouldn’t have time for anything else.” Keillor is two years younger than I am. I know what he was talking about, but I cannot bring myself to follow his example. Last month and this, I lost two remarkable friends.

The entrance to my study. Above the door and two doors adjoining it are a set of works by Ritsaert ten Cate (1838-2008). They are composite images of Rembrandt self-portraits from ten Cate’s Honestly stolen from the experience of a lifetime.

In 1995 I received a telephone call from a man whose name I had known for nearly thirty years but had never met. Ritsaert ten Cate was a legendary theater-maker. In the 1960s and 70s Loekie and I had gone to some performances at Mickery, his theater in Loenersloot and later Amsterdam. The reason for his call was completely unexpected. “Your biography of Rembrandt means a lot to me,” he said. “I’ve read and reread it. The way you place the lonely artist in the real world was a revelation. So when I was asked to suggest an author for a biography of myself, you were the first one I thought of.” Part of the Sphinx Cultural Prize, which was awarded to ten Cate in Maastricht in 1996, was the publication of a book on the recipient of the award. For several months I interviewed ten Cate and people who knew him, went through his writings and the books on Mickery. I spent time with Ritsaert in theaters and artist’s studios in Belgium, getting a taste of his way with people and projects.

Since then we saw each other mainly at the openings of his art exhibitions. His work always grabbed you by the collar and sometimes by the throat. One exhibition in particular got to me. At de Appel in Amsterdam in 2004, he produced a mixture of images and objects under the title De wereld deugt, wijzelf helaas wat minder (The world is all right, we ourselves unfortunately somewhat less so). It was a demonstration by way of things we had once seen and not thought about, like press photography, that the world is full of intense experience, often tragic, sometimes ecstatic, that we mainly choose to ignore.

Even if I have not been able to live up to his challenge to drain life to the lees, I took with me, and will always keep one main impression. Into otherwise normal work relationships – and he turned all of his relationships into work – Ritsaert was able to implant an irresistible dose of love. Once it was there, it would rekindle not only whenever you saw him, but also every time you thought about him or, as I do many times a day, look at his work. My own Rembrandt, in that book of 1984, was cold and cruel. Ritsaert helped me get closer to Rembrandt’s humanity through his own love-filled vision of him. My feeling is that he achieved miracles of this personal kind not only for everyone he knew, but even for many of the vast number of those he reached through his theater, his theater school DasArts and his art.

For memorials on the extraordinary Ritsaert ten Cate, who died on September 5th, and for pictures and texts by him, see

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First-class deck chairs in our garden, bought from Lodewijk Houthakker fifteen years or so ago, and allowed to decay untended into decrepitude.

My other lost friend, as close or closer to Loekie as to me, was Lodewijk Houthakker (1926-2008), who died on October 2nd. He was an art dealer, mainly in drawings, in Amsterdam. Lodewijk practiced a form of studied self-indulgence in which he allowed his large circle of friends to participate. The most obvious form was indulgence in food and drink. Every five years he celebrated his birthday with a champagne and oyster afternoon at his town mansion on the Herengracht. Get-togethers in between were marked by meals at good restaurants. Lodewijk also indulged himself in his business by culling the best design drawings for his personal collection. A catalogue by Peter Fuhring was published in 1989 under the title . For a refracted picture of Lodewijk as a refined connoisseur with mystical inclinations, see the novel by Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (Rituelen), where Lodewijk is portrayed as Bernard Roozenboom.

At the funeral on Friday afternoon, October 10th, the speakers quoted their favorite Houthakker bons mots, the pointed sayings that he used to comment on his own doings and those of others. I was the last speaker, and was afraid that my three quotes would be used by one of the others. I needn’t have feared. There was a large enough store to go around. “If you want to keep something secret from me, publish it in an art-history journal,” he used to say, part of a pose of disdain toward academic art history that did not preclude building up a store of art-historical knowledge, supporting art-history journals and befriending many an art historian.

Then there is: “My doctor forbids me to bore myself” (Ik mag me van de dokter niet vervelen) a motto that entitled him to sleep through lectures, including one of mine in Edinburgh in August 1992.

And then a phrase that covered more of the same territory: “I wasn’t born to make myself miserable” (Ik ben niet voor m’n verdriet geboren), which provided Lodewijk with carte blanche for many a transgression against prudence in matters of health, finance and other fields. It also served to ward off the pain of the misery he suffered even if he wasn’t born for it. The misery of being Jewish in the German occupation of Holland and being hid away during the war far from his parents. The misery of failing to find a wife and of seeing his gallery decline in significance year after year.

Lodewijk overcame his weaknesses with the saving graces of charm, generosity, humor and loyalty. He was helped immeasurably in his last years, devastated by Alzheimer’s, by the last of the beautiful young woman assistants who worked for him, Ineke Hellingman.

The complexity of Lodewijk’s character and history came across to me strongly at the funeral. After all the warm public tributes, people spoke privately about unresolved bitternesses in his life, of personal relations that were far from warm and financial problems that he could have but did not avoid. His frequent reference to Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies was not only playful.

Ineke told me she is going to continue the tradition of the five-yearly birthday celebrations. With no hope of closure, we will have the chance to perpetuate the mysterious impact of Lodewijk Houthakker on so many of us.

Gary Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1940. In 1965 he came to the Netherlands with a graduate fellowship in art history and stayed. He has been active as a translator, editor and publisher; teacher, lecturer and writer; and as the founder of CODART, an international network organization for curators of Dutch and Flemish art. As an art historian, he is best known for his books on Rembrandt: Rembrandt: all the etchings in true size (1977), Rembrandt, his life, his paintings: a new biography (1984) and The Rembrandt Book (2006). His Internet column, now called the Schwartzlist, has been appearing every other week since September 1996. His most recent book on Rembrandt is one of the six titles nominated for the Banister Fletcher Award for the most deserving book on art or architecture of the past year. Contact him at Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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  One Response to “Visual Arts: The Caress of Civilizations”

Comments (1)
  1. I read with sadness your comment on Lodewijk Houthakker, who was a friend. Reading your words evoked pleasant memories.

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