Last summer when I was in Dublin, the one and only place which I was determined to visit was the Chester Beatty Library, Alfred Chester Beatty having been an American collector of everything from Chinese snuff bottles to Persian manuscripts. Imagine having the pleasure–as Beatty once did–of being able to hold in your hands the History of the West Indies (Persian, 17th century) which contains the charming little anteater below. One can only assume that the little fellow’s Pepé-Le-Pew mode of perambulation is the result of a spicy meal of fire ants. In any case, he is a delight, and thanks to Beatty’s foresight and generosity, he frolics for the delight and happiness of all visitors to the CBL.
For the sake of conservation, as well as for the public’s benefit, some of the manuscripts, books, prints, and decorative items on display rotate through. I hadn’t researched what was on temporary last year, but I had planned the days with great care for what was open when and what was near what. It was a grand schedule which went the way of all flesh because masterfully as I thought I’d planned, I had not accounted for the [expletive deleted] June Bank Holiday which fell upon the one and only day I had open for the CBL.
Reader, I wept.
Alright, I didn’t so much weep as gnash my teeth and cuss. Volubly and at great length.
Thus, when I returned to Dublin this year (with students), even though I only had two and a half hours to spare I got myself to the CBL the other day. There I did a quick round through their permanent exhibit on the book (which contained the happy anteater above) in order to focus the majority of my time on their temporary exhibit of the very fine Coëtivy Book of Hours (Parisian, 15med). This particular book of hours came into the Beatty collection as an anniversary gift from Edith Beatty to her husband. We should all receive such anniversary gifts. Or birthday gifts.
Christmas? May day? (My gosh, what does a gal have to do to get a fifteenth-century book of hours?)
Having babewyns and whatnot on the brain, I expect that I went through the Coëtivy exhibit rather differently from other people. I certainly went through it differently from the woman with a massive (and noisy) white SLR which intimidated the dickens out of me. While I fuddled about with my brand-new (wee) Sony, trying to figure out how to focus the damn thing on fine details (only to keep inexplicably turning on the video function), this woman clearly knew what to do with a sizeable camera. I must confess to a strange feeling of inadequacy that made me feel a sudden sympathy for men in public restrooms.
Still, if she knew how to use a camera, that woman knew diddly about looking. She shot the entirety of the exhibits and was out the door before I’d even finished looking at a half-dozen pages. Holy St Æðelþryð! Why not go all the way and strap on roller skates! When you’re in a museum, take the time to see things in context. Given how much thought, research, and design go into exhibits, I believe it’s worth stepping back (as well as stepping in) to receive and absorb. Look slowly. See newly. Just keep your nose off the glass.
Where was I before I went and got all homiletical? (No, it’s not a word, but it should be.) Ah, yes: staring at the margins of the Coëtivy book of hours and no doubt looking utterly daft. However lovely the central images of the pages might be, I tend to be captivated by margins and the decorative elements of medieval manuscripts; and those of the Coëtivy were exquisitely done (if a bit well-behaved for my taste). Below are a few, a very few, items from the margins.
First, two tangled creatures from the margins of a page on (of all things) transubstantiation. Perhaps they are prophetic of the tangling of Catholics and Protestants over the subject in the years to follow.
Second, don’t ask me to explain the fact that a porcupine and lion are facing off in the image below. I can’t. Since I couldn’t find any hedgehogs (which I love), you get a porcupine. Just because.
Lastly, on the page displaying the martyrdom of St. James, I thought I’d found an example of the creature one sometimes finds with its face in its stomach. Alas, no such luck. Closer inspection reveals it’s a cat cleaning itself. That is a sight which, frankly, never bears closer inspection. It beats me why the illuminator decided that the cat should clean itself while lounging on bellows. I could make up a story about bagpipes playing in the background as the illuminator worked and something about subconscious thoughts of squeezed cats, but I know I have at least one reader of Scottish descent who resents slighting references to bagpipes. So, I’ll leave that little mystery where it is and step away, simply commending the CBL to those of you planning a trip to Dublin.