When you think of medieval art, drawing may not spring instantly to mind.
Medieval ivories and enamels? Definitely. Medieval sculpture, metalwork and stained glass? Sure.
Of course medieval artists — many of whom were anonymous monks working as scribes in scriptoria — drew. All those manuscript illuminations had to start somewhere. But did they actually make drawings that survived and were cherished as drawings, or that filled practical needs that only drawing can?
To most of us, European drawing before the Renaissance and its emphasis on individual genius and the artist’s hand is a dark, uncharted void. Which may explain why “Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art feels so startlingly full of light. You may even find yourself rubbing your eyes and blinking.
The 50 little-seen works on view span nearly five centuries and reveal medieval drawing to be vital, evolving, remarkably diverse and essential to the medium’s Renaissance blossoming. The medieval period is often compared with its successor and found lacking. And the superficial clumsiness in some of these works may initially ratchet up your awe for the Renaissance and for the radical changes wrought by its embrace of antiquity and its obsession with the human body and linear perspective.
But with a little time at this show the gap starts to shrink. The skills of medieval artists dovetailed with their otherworldly goals: the bodies that interested them most were heavenly. But, as this exhibition demonstrates, realism was not beyond their reach.
The material on hand ranges from accidental drawings — that is, unfinished illuminations that inspired a new emphasis on line — to exquisite efforts like a breathtaking ink rendering of a facade of Strasbourg Cathedral from around 1260. Many of them crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time to be here. Adding to their freshness, almost all come from university or monastic libraries rather than museums.
Organized by Melanie Holcomb, an associate curator, and Elizabeth Williams, a research assistant, both in the Met’s department of medieval art, the show comes with an excellent catalog that brings together a pithy introductory essay by Ms. Holcomb and lengthy entries by Ms. Williams and a dozen other curators and scholars. That number alone suggests both the broad scope of the works on view and the rarity of the occasion.
In the first gallery an assortment of illuminated manuscripts — psalters, gospels, epistles and a Bible or two — trace the liberation of drawing from its subservient role in richly colored illuminated texts. Hand-drawn line gradually assumes a life of its own, uncoiling from elaborate initials, existing on equal terms with color and abandoning carefully framed settings to exploit white parchment pages and the physical facts of the book as object.
In an 11th-century French codex, the Maccabees pursue their retreating foe across the gutter of a two-page spread as over adjacent hills. Shields are painted orange and green; chain mail is indicated with tiny circles in ink on wash; otherwise line dominates, especially satisfying in its account of the lunging horses and contrasting body language of victors and vanquished.
Occasionally lines do all the work, as in a sinuous ink image from the late ninth century of St. Paul lecturing an agitated crowd of Jews and gentiles, rendered by a Swiss monk with a special talent for depicting hair. (Tonsures never looked so good, and Paul’s beard ends in curling droplets of ink.) The image is part of a copy of the Pauline Epistles lent by the Monastery of St. Gall, having been made on the premises.
But luxury of material and execution were generally considered the Christian way, and this led to lavish minglings of colored line, solid or thinly washed color and gold leaf that reached its height among Anglo-Saxon draftsmen. In a Gospel from Canterbury around 1000, St. Matthew, seated by a lectern, is shown in robes that consist entirely of swirling lines of blue, green and red ink. His immediate background is a deep red wash surrounded by a more densely colored architecture; the book on which he works has gold-leaf pages.
Equally striking, and much nuttier, is an image of the evangelist John from the Corbie Gospels (French, 11th century). Both his robe and the columns flanking him are white parchment streaked with red, for an alluring candy-cane effect.