New York’s Morgan Library features an online version of an exhibit devoted to “The Book of Ruth: Medieval to Modern,” which was on view when the museum closed in March. A survey of the library’s manuscript collection of the biblical Book of Ruth, the show put the spotlight on a modern manuscript of the Old Testament story, a recent donation from Joanna S. Rose, the collector and patron who commissioned the work. Completed over a two-year period from 2015-2017, this newest Book of Ruth is an 18-foot long two-sided English and Hebrew accordion-fold vellum manuscript. Artist Barbara Wolff, renowned for her mastery of the technique of illumination, rendered illustrations in black ink, gouache, and gold and silver platinum.
As beautiful as it is, Wolff’s creation is more than just a dazzling surface; a wealth of treasures is revealed in these panels, which include both figurative and non-figurative images. Her intricate and painstaking process partners with her ability to mine underlying nuances of emotion through her choice of subject and enhances the narrative in ways that will deepen the understanding of the story of Ruth even to those possessing an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament and commentaries.
The Bible records the story of Ruth, a young widow who pledges to share the life and faith of her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Together they leave Bethlehem to escape the famine. They arrive in Moab, where Ruth meets Naomi’s relation, the wealthy landowner Boaz. After his wheat is harvested, he allows Ruth to collect the leftover grain from the threshing floor. The couple is destined to marry and become the great grandparents of the future king of Israel, David, and, according to Christian tradition, possess direct lineage to Jesus.
For her sources, Wolff studied diverse and wide-ranging texts by theologians, scientists, philosophers and historians. Expanding her understanding of the narrative, they addressed topics that ranged from Iron Age (1200-1000 BCE) archeology, biblical anthropology, and 21st century climate change, to cartography and horticulture. With her thorough knowledge and understanding of the iconographical traditions of medieval manuscripts and codices that include this story, Wolff chose to follow a new path. She approached the narrative from a different perspective, augmenting the events recounted in the Old Testament through her pictures of Israel’s landscape, geology, flowers and plants as well as farming implements, shoes, clothing and textiles used during this time. As the backdrop for the Old Testament story, the illustrations convey a sense of immediacy through their subtle and poignant references to the plight of the poor, the vulnerable and the immigrant in today’s world.
Wolff’s art has been previously featured at the Morgan. Of her esoteric medium, she has noted: “It's like being an alchemist….It's magic turning these pieces into gold. You live a 13th-century timeline in the 21st century.” Wolff has observed: “the work is slow in the best sense of the word. By slow I mean with thoughtfulness, deliberation, great care.”
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 522D, a gift of the LeWitt family installed in the museum’s lobby space since 2018, is also available for online viewing. A giant at 20 x 30 feet, the richly colored geometric work was not painted by the artist, but existed as a set of detailed instructions, generated during the 1980s, to be executed directly in the space where it would be installed. A 20th century master, LeWitt, (1928-2007), laid the groundwork for Minimalism — a cerebral approach to art-making developed in the 1960s and ‘70s in response to the improvisatory and emotional Abstract Expressionist Movement. Wall Drawing 522D manifests the artist’s groundbreaking rethinking of process as opposed to fabrication, articulated simply and directly in his 1967 statement: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. All of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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