Booklet with Scenes of the Passion by Unknown artists

Unknown artists

Booklet with Scenes of the Passion, c.1300–20, Elephant ivory, polychromy, and gilding, Overall (opened): 7.2 x 8.1 x 1.2 cm; overall (closed): 7.2 x 4 x 2.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982, 1982.60.399, www.metmuseum.org

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Participating in the Story

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This medieval ivory booklet is no larger than the palm of one’s hand, yet it contains an elaborate collection of images, both carved and painted. The exteriors of the covers feature scenes in relief from Christ’s Passion; the interiors of the covers display representations of the Virgin, also in relief; and the first and last pages include paintings of angels and the Three Magi in Adoration. Even the vertical ends of the covers are carved with narrative figures from the last hours of Christ’s life.

In contrast to these highly decorated parts, the four central pages of the booklet are left blank. This unadorned space was meant for the application of thin layers of wax, on which personal prayers could then be inscribed using a stylus. The interactive nature of these blank pages enabled a bond to form between the devout owner and the religious events depicted on the booklet. The owner not only got to hold the story of Christ’s Passion in their hands, but also became a participant within that story by ritually inserting intercessory prayers.

According to Exodus, the craftspeople who built the tabernacle included carpenters and metalworkers, woodcarvers and weavers, embroiderers and jewellers, perfumers and engravers. With the exception of Bezalel and Oholiab, whom God designated as the project’s supervisors (35:30–36:3), the book of Exodus does not identify any of the artisans by name. And yet God’s detailed instructions for creating and installing the tabernacle’s components are repeated three times, suggesting the importance of their role in the story of God coming to reside among his people.

Just as the owner of the ivory booklet formed a bond with the events of Christ’s Passion by inscribing prayers onto the blank pages, so too the tabernacle’s makers formed emotional and bodily connections to the larger story of God coming to live among Israel. The artisans’ skill and labour counted as prayers. Stitched, gathered, and multilayered like the ivory booklet, the tabernacle symbolizes the enfolding of the makers’ embodied prayers into the larger story of God’s relationship with his people.

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