Sacred Song: Chanting the Bible in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

  • NEW YORK, New York
  • /
  • January 06, 2014

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Gradual, (Olivetan Use) In Latin, illuminated manuscript on parchment with musical notation Italy, Lombardy [Santa Maria di Baggio near Milan?], c. 1430’s
Les Enluminures

The 30 manuscripts comprising this exhibition, on view at Les Enluminures New York, 23 East 73rd Street, from January 24 to February 21, 2014, will reflect the extraordinary scope of the Gregorian chant tradition by exploring the distinctive artistry, history, and mystery of these early biblical readings.

Representing the earliest substantial body of music preserved in written form, Gregorian chant has continued as a living tradition throughout the medieval age and well into the modern era. Featured in the liturgical services of the Roman Catholic Church, this sacred chant owes its origin to the legend of a dove – or the Holy Spirit – singing directly into the ear of Pope Gregory the Great (Reigned from 590-604 AD). Reflecting the inseparability between music and liturgy throughout the Middle Ages, the chant consists of a vocal, monophonic music composed in Latin using sacred texts from the Old and New Testaments. Often referred to as a “sung Bible,” it did not appear in written form until the ninth century. 

Divided into three thematic groups, the exhibition begins with “In the Church: in the Choir,” featuring monumental manuscripts that were used to present the music for the Mass and the Divine Office. Choirs sang from these large books (mostly Graduals and Antiphonals), the colorful initials of which signaled the beginnings of each feast.  Both monks and nuns, not only chanted within the walls of the medieval church, but outside and on foot as well. Thus, “Outside the Church: in the Cloister, in the Cemetery, and in the City and Countryside” features portable liturgical manuscripts called Processionals; some illuminated and often personalized. A final grouping: “Apart from the Church: in the Classroom, in the Chapter House, and in the Congregation” presents those forms of chant that were often preserved in non-liturgical contexts. 

Chanting the Bible

Serving as a vital link between the earliest days of the Church and the Church of later centuries, the text of early medieval Choir books, including some dated from the Renaissance, often contain biblical verses that come from pre-Jerome versions of the Bible (the Vetus Latina or Old Latin Bible). In fact, most words that form Gregorian chant are taken from the Latin Bible, and usually from the Vulgate translated by St. Jerome near the end of the fourth century. In Graduals, sung sections called Introits (invitations or openings of a chant), offertories, and communions are biblical passages often taken from the Book of Psalms. Here, focus is placed on the individual’s relationship to God, his praise of, petition to, need for repentance, and exhortation, etc.

Exhibition Catalogue

A fully-illustrated exhibition catalogue, edited by Susan Boynton and Laura Light with a preface by Sandra Hindman, will be published by Les Enluminures and Paul Holberton. Price: $35.00


Les Enluminures was founded in Paris in 1991 by Dr. Sandra Hindman in association with the Chicago-based business, and opened its New York gallery in May 2012. Specializing in manuscripts and miniatures from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the gallery also handles rings and jewelry from the same periods. It organizes four or five exhibitions a year, some travelling and in collaboration with other dealers, which are often accompanied by catalogues.

Les Enluminures exhibits at many prestigious art and antique shows, including: The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht; the Winter Antiques Show in New York; Masterpiece in London, and the San Francisco Fall Antiques Show. International clients of the gallery include: the Musée du Louvre in Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as well as many other institutional and private clients worldwide.


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