“Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through August 23, 2009.

Melanie Holcomb, Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages, Yale University Press, 2009

“Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages” is the most original museum show in this country since 2002’s “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence.” These audacious exhibitions turn scholarly probity into artistic revelation; it speaks volumes about the curatorial esprit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that this great institution has been responsible for both events. “Tapestry in the Renaissance,” which made a definitive case for the centrality of woven images in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European art, was the defining moment in the career of Thomas Campbell, a relatively untested curator who is now the director of the Metropolitan. It is anyone’s guess where the curator Melanie Holcomb will be in seven years, but there is no doubt that with this new, gorgeously focused show, she has reframed the place of drawing in the history of European art. I cannot imagine someone going through this epochal exhibition without being convinced that drawing was recognized as a deeply personal avowal as early as the ninth century. We may know next to nothing about the artists who did most of this work, but we can see that they were expressing their own sense of life through the energy that they brought to marks made with pen and ink on parchment. (Click here to see a slideshow of the exhibit.)

The exhibition is a knockout, at once sumptuous and restrained. The entire show fits into three galleries, but what galleries they are! Holcomb has gathered books and manuscripts from museums, libraries, and religious institutions in Europe and the United States. And it is in these bound volumes that the signal graphic achievements of the Middle Ages are to be found. Everybody, of course, knows the illuminated manuscripts of those centuries, with their dazzlingly colored pages, finished to a jewel-like shimmer. Holcomb’s great idea has been to set those works aside for the time being, and focus instead on what have traditionally perhaps been regarded as humbler fare. These are the pictures done with black or brown or sometimes colored ink, many of which have, at least at first glance, a more casual, more informal character. Such works, she argues, put us in touch with the medieval artist’s most immediate impressions and responses. I think she is absolutely right. There is an easygoing, wonderfully lowdown quality about a lot of the work in this show. We have gotten beyond the delicious formality of the illuminated manuscript. We are seeing artists in a variety of moods, sometimes ruminative or contemplative, at other times more intuitive, more playful. Even when the artists are doing something wonderfully elegant, it is an off-the-cuff elegance, an improvisational elegance. There are so many different kinds of lines to be seen in this show, from skeletal and attenuated to athletic and even frenetic. We see flashes of humor and wit, but also agitation, anxiety, and melancholy.

The place of individual expression in art has long been a controversial subject. Many scholars are convinced that before the fifteenth or sixteenth century, artists did not see their work as grounded in some personal impulse or sensibility. And it is true that only beginning in the Renaissance was the art of drawing written about in an extended way and were drawings, those immediate records of the artist’s hand, seriously collected. Holcomb must be aware that she is challenging a good deal of received opinion when she argues for the importance of drawing as a distinctive creative act in pre-Renaissance Europe. She is a scholar who is as scrupulous as she is audacious, as careful as she is bold. She makes good on her promise, as she explains in the altogether admirable catalogue, “to make visible the work of the medieval draftsman, to sort out its myriad forms and uses, and to highlight where and when drawing was especially resonant as an aesthetic choice.” “Aesthetic choice” is a very daring idea to ascribe to the anonymous artists of the tenth or eleventh centuries, but Holcomb goes right ahead and does it. She reminds us that medieval artists were by no means unaware of the place of drawing in late classical art; indeed, they probably knew many examples that have subsequently been lost. By tracing the graphic style of certain medieval manuscripts back to ancient sources, she suggests the powerful presence of an ongoing tradition. The artists of the Renaissance were fascinated by accounts in classical texts of the graphic virtuosity of Greek artists. Perhaps that same tradition resonated, albeit in a more muffled way, among the artists of the Middle Ages.

Seeing is believing. Just look at the tremendous page illustrating the Ascension, from the Bury Saint Edmunds Psalter, on display in “Pen and Parchment.” Who can doubt that the eleventh-century English artist responsible for this work understood the emotional possibilities that could be unleashed with a draftsman’s tools? He has created a casually commanding narrative with nothing more than some marginal decorations on a page of text. Crowding the left and right margins are dazzling studies of the mortals who watch, wild-eyed with astonishment, as Christ ascends. Each tiny figure, rendered with quick, exact, expressionist strokes of the pen, is a study in human wonderment. The artist’s hand, in the process of making the line, conveys all the turmoil of twisted bodies, upturned necks, and outstretched hands. The Ascension itself has been dramatized through a miracle of formal ingenuity. When we look at the top margin we do not see much more than Christ’s feet, because the rest of his body has already moved beyond the paper’s edge. The drawing is an autographic reflection of an artistic idea--as personal, as immediate as any sheet by Leonardo or Raphael. The Bury Saint Edmunds Psalter is one of many high points in the first room of this exhibition, and the quality stays astronomically high throughout. What Melanie Holcomb is arguing for is nothing less than artistic individualism as a fundamental human impulse, one that originates long before the Renaissance. To make marks, she is saying, is to be human. At “Pen and Parchment” the “anonymous” medieval artist is anonymous no more.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.

By Jed Perl