Unexpected runes

Hurry in to the “Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time” exhibit in NY to see a Christian calendar in a pagan alphabet

The Art of Medieval Time, Morgan Library & Museum

Photo courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum
This artifact mixes a (Christian) church calendar with writing associated with pre-Christian peoples.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I love medieval art because there is basically one theme articulated—Christianity—yet it is expressed in so many unique and whimsical ways. In terms of materials used—vellum, wood, glass, stone, metals, and ivory, to name a few—but also in terms of the attention to miniscule spaces, as seen in medieval manuscripts and in the fantastical creatures that are conjured from the imaginative minds of artists of the time, especially in depicting hell and the devil. The latter are so original, evoking pure primitive terror, and yet often read as contemporary.

So it was no surprise that I would be excited to see the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibit, “Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time.” It includes illuminated manuscripts trumpeting rich cobalt and ruby flourishes, with each page lit by gold. Three examples of Sales of Indulgences are on display (a surprise and treat for a Lutheran) along with a wooden timepiece, a huge astrolabe from the Abbey of San Zeno Verona, ca. 1455 CE.

However, I was most astonished to see a biblical calendar written in runes with detailed etched images. It is from either northern France or southern Belgium, ca. 1510-30. This miniature marvel is made of either ivory or walrus tusk. Runes, according to Wikipedia, are “the letters in a set of related alphabets known as runic alphabets, which were used to write various Germanic languages before the adoption of the Latin alphabet.” Of course, this includes the Norse languages.

The Art of Medieval Time

Photo courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum

In all of my travels through Iceland, as well as Europe—the British Isles, Scandinavia, Bruges (a city that is a medieval artpiece), France, and all across the continent to Poland, I have never seen a Christian book written in runes. In fact, I have never seen any Christian artifact with runic writing, which makes sense, since it is considered a pagan alphabet.

An artifact like this is so unusual that exhibit curator Roger Wieck stated, “There are only about half a dozen that survive…. There are five lines of runes on each month. These contain astronomical data; for example, the Dominical Letters fill the first line, for tracking Sundays (and all other days) throughout the year. The second line contains the Golden Numbers, for tracking new moons in the sky throughout the year. The calendar is very interesting and quite scarce.”

This Pictographic Calendar is opened to two pages that show the “Red Letter Days” of St. Gregory the Great’s Saint Day on March 12, the feast of the Annunciation on March 25, and the feast of St. George celebrated on April 23. As the book is very small and the color very dark, it is hard to decipher and enjoy the wonderful etchings portraying each of these special days. Fortunately, the exhibit has a replica of the pages in black ink on a white background that reveals all of the images next to the original, including St. George slaying the dragon.

So, why does this book exist and for whom? Was it made for a recent convert? Do other Christian artifacts with runes exist? It’s nice to have mysteries.

The Morgan is also offering a wonderful medieval lunch, curated to accompany the exhibit. The Noble Table menu includes a glass of mead, apple soup with almond milk, honey, and spices, and a roast pheasant salad with pomegranates and dates. It was delicious. This menu is being served through April 27.

There is another piece in this exhibit that has a Scandinavian connection, an illuminated manuscript opened to the pages depicting St. Bridget of Sweden, entitled “Visions of Heaven,” from 14th-century Naples. The exhibit text explains that “The fourteenth-century St. Bridget of Sweden had numerous visions, which she duly recorded. This manuscript was made around the time of her canonization in 1391.”

“Now and Forever: The Art of Medieval Time” runs through April 28. The Morgan Library and Museum is located at 225 Madison Ave, New York, NY.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.