University Art Gallery “illuminates” world of medieval manuscripts


Thomas Yang | Senior Staff Photographer

The University Art Gallery will open its first online exhibition Wednesday.

By Anna Ligorio, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt’s University Art Gallery is turning a new — or rather, very old — page in the world of online art exhibitions this week.

The University Art Gallery will open their first online exhibition, “A Nostalgic Filter: Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age,” with a virtual conversation and exhibit tour on Wednesday at 12 p.m. According to Sylvia Rhor, the UAG’s director, this online exhibit will display Pitt’s extensive collection of medieval manuscripts replications.

“Pitt has a very strong collection of medieval manuscript facsimiles, which are copies of original manuscripts that are works of art in themselves,” Rhor said. “They give an opportunity to learn in a way that we couldn’t if we didn’t have access to the original works.”

These facsimiles are copies of medieval manuscripts, which are illuminated — or, intricately decorated — books that address a range of different subjects. According to Shirin Fozi, an associate professor of history of art and architecture who organized the exhibit with her students, these facsimiles make medieval manuscripts more accessible.

“The originals are incredibly fragile and they are incredibly valuable,” Fozi said. “For as long as they’ve been around they’ve been restricted, so starting in the 1800s, people started making facsimiles of these medieval manuscripts.”

The UAG originally meant to hold this exhibit was originally in its brick-and-mortar gallery space in the Frick Fine Arts Building, but moved it online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Fozi, the online format means the exhibit now focuses on understanding how the manuscripts can be viewed digitally.

“When COVID happened we had the idea of making it into an online exhibition.” Fozi said. “A lot of the original manuscripts are digitized and put online already, so the theme of the exhibition is, ‘What is it that we can see using the online digitized versions of the manuscripts?’”

Fozi said the online exhibition will feature videos and images of every page of the featured facsimiles, allowing viewers to interact with the facsimiles as if they are turning the pages of a physical book.

“Every section of the show has a video of facsimiles that shows the page is being turned.” Fozi said. “We really tried to kind of communicate what the facsimile actually looks like when you interact with it in real life.”

She added that the online display is a great way to get people interested in these books. Fozi said without previous context, their content can be hard to understand, so the exhibition provides an in-depth look into the facsimiles.

“The exhibition gets you interested because it shows you the pictures and the theme,” Fozi said. “Nobody would be interested in going online and looking for photographs of it unless you had a little introduction into why it’s actually interesting, so that’s what the show really gives you.”

Fozi and her students curated the exhibit in a two-part seminar offered last spring and this fall. According to her, the exhibition seminar aims to teach art history and museum studies students how to coordinate an exhibit.

“The students collaboratively work together and research one or two manuscripts,” Fozi said. “But the research that they are doing isn’t aimed at writing a research paper, it’s aimed at figuring out how your object fits into the show and thinking about how everything fits together.”

Madeline Conigliaro, a junior studying anthropology, religious studies and museum studies, is enrolled this semester in Fozi’s exhibition seminar. She said for her, the class was a great way to understand how exactly museum exhibitions are created.

“This class really quickly showed me the effort it takes to put together a whole exhibit and what kind of time crunches you’re under,” Conigliaro said. “This isn’t something you can do in a week. There’s a lot of little details and things that you have to go through in order to get things done.”

Conigliaro focused on two psalters, or books of psalms and hymns, to study for her role in curating the exhibit — the Utrecht Psalter and the Anglo-Catalan Psalter. According to Conigliaro, these psalters embody themes of travel and mobility in medieval art. 

“The Utrecht is an older manuscript which inspired multiple other psalters, including the Anglo-Catalan,” she said. “I’ve found out that these two manuscripts traveled throughout Europe and influenced many different cultures along the way.”

According to Fozi, the spring production of the exhibit was disrupted due to the pandemic, in particular because of the way that the disjointed semester affected every student differently. But even though the pandemic disrupted the initial planning for the exhibition, Fozi said she and her students were able to adapt to the situation this fall. 

“We decided to put all the facsimiles on hold in special collections in Hillman,” Fozi said. “The students made appointments to go in, and then they took photos of their facsimiles and they made videos for the facsimiles as well.”

Even though the pandemic prevented the UAG from showing the manuscripts in person, Rhor said she believes that the online exhibition was a great idea and could be even better than an in-person exhibit.

“In an exhibition you can’t actually go through the entire book because they’re just on one page, but online you can look at the whole book and really connect,” Rhor said. 

Even though Fozi and her students did much research and work on this exhibit themselves, she credits Pitt professors who came before her for accumulating this extensive collection in the first place. 

“Three former Pitt professors, John Williams, Carl Nordenfalk and Alison Stones are world-renowned scholars in manuscript illumination,” Fozi said. “All three of them worked very closely with facsimiles before I was here, and they are the reason why Pitt has such a great collection.”

According to Fozi, this is UAG’s second facsimile exhibition, after Nordenfalk’s 1976 exhibit. For Fozi, this exhibit highlights the strength of Pitt’s own resources and is really about showing what the University has to offer. 

“This exhibit is deeply rooted in Pitt’s own history,” Fozi said. “For me, it’s like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and it’s something that I really want to share with my students because it’s good for everyone to know.”