Sacred Beauty

Everything is illuminated: Netherlandish border

Everything is illuminated: Netherlandish border

Everything is illuminated: Netherlandish border, top, late fifteenth century, from a Flemish book of hours. 12 x 10 3⁄4 inches; above, Last Judgment, ca. 1440, from a book of hours. 15 1⁄2 x 13 inches. Collection of Robert J. Parsons Ph.D. '80.


While working as a public-school teacher in Connecticut in the early 1980s, Robert Parsons Ph.D. '80 found himself short of money. He packed a few suitcases full of discarded textbooks and went to New York. He sold the books and, with his earnings, began what has become a lifelong passion.

In "Sacred Beauty: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts from the Collection of Robert J. Parsons," now on display at the Nasher Museum of Art,  Parsons' enthusiasm and skill in collecting illuminated manuscripts is clearly manifest.

The manuscripts, from missals and books of hours used for devotional purposes and dating mostly from the late Middle Ages, were a status symbol and form of portable wealth for nobles of the time. Now often extant only as individual pages or fragments, the works are finely detailed, with some aspects visible only with a magnifying glass.

Vividly colored with tempera paints made from natural materials and precious gems ground into pigments and illuminated with burnished gold leaf, the manuscripts are the centerpiece of the exhibit. They are on display alongside religious objects from the Nasher's permanent collection, including stained-glass windows, paintings, and sculpture.

Parsons, a self-taught collector, has moved strategically to build the aesthetic and historical strength of his holdings. Reading voluminously and traveling widely to meet with collectors and dealers, he has learned the origins of many of his works, which date primarily from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and come from Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. He owns pieces by noted period masters such as the Olivetan Master (possibly identified as Frater Jeronimus of Milan) and even one once owned by Pope Pius V.

The Nasher exhibition will run through May 10.

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