The Christmas Story: Picturing the Birth of Christ in Medieval Manuscripts

December 03, 2009–February 28, 2010

Christmas, one of the most joyful seasons for Christian communities worldwide, celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and the dramatic events that took place during his infancy,— from his nativity in a lowly stable, to the angel’s announcement of this news to local shepherds, to Herod’s murder of all the babies in Bethlehem, and his narrow escape from that slaughter.

As it is recounted in the Christian New Testament, the Christmas story is remarkably short on specifics. In rendering the story into pictures, it fell to medieval illuminators to supply the details. Even today, popular representations of these events are based on images devised during the Middle Ages.

In the early 16th century, Cardinal Patriarch Marco Cornaro commissioned one such illuminated manuscript, the famous Cornaro Missal. A missal is a book containing all of the prayers and responses to celebrate the Roman Catholic Mass throughout the year.

In the early 1600s, the missal was bound in a Roman binding of elaborately tooled leather in a French fanfare-style design. A masterpiece of Italian Renaissance art by an anonymous artist from northern Italy, the missal was later acquired by the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family. Seized by the Nazis on the eve of World War II, the missal was returned to the Rothschilds after the war and later sold by them at auction. Now in a private American collection, the Walters plans to display the manuscript as the focus of a temporary manuscript show over Christmas.