Page by luminous page, it is a gift that continues to give. Part of the Harvard Art Museums’ permanent collections, the rare Thesaurus Sacrarum (Sacred Encyclopedia) is a sumptuous 16th-century volume replete with hand-painted engravings of biblical scenes.
This treasure was generously given to the museums by Barbara Ketcham Wheaton in memory of her husband, Robert Bradford Wheaton. Like so many others from the late 1500s, the album and its engravings were created and bound in Antwerp, Belgium, then the center of Europe’s publishing industry. The album is from a series made by the famed Gerard de Jode and is one of just nine that survive intact; many others were taken apart and sold page by page, known today only through their individual prints.
“Part of what makes this particular album so special is its silver and gold paint; it’s joining manuscript illumination with fine art prints,” said Elizabeth Rudy, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints. “A critique often leveled at prints is that they’re not unique because they are created in multiples—an opinion that any prints curator would dispute. But when a multiple has been embellished in some way, as in this case, then it is undeniably unique.”
Depicting a range of well-known biblical stories such as “The Elders Trying to Seduce Susanna” and “Belshazzar’s Feast,” the album’s prints juxtapose contrasting colors—bright blue with vivid orange, for example—reflecting contemporary tastes in Northern European painting of the period. Besides handwritten inscriptions in French identifying the chapter and verse from which each scene derives, the album lacks any other didactic explanations, suggesting an appeal to a broad cross-section of the Christian population.
The fine quality of the hand-coloring indicates someone with “quite a lot of ability as a painter,” said Rudy. Pointing to several places on one print, she noted delicate gold details that catch the light, including those at the edge of a figure’s cloak. “The painting on all of these sheets involved costly resources, so it wasn’t an everyday technique.”
De Jode most likely produced at least a hundred complete albums and oversaw the creation of about a thousand engravings for the volumes. Bound in fine Moroccan leather by another craftsman, the albums were destined for the libraries of wealthy or otherwise distinguished individuals.
A rare treasure like the Wheaton album requires special care and planning when on display. Curators, conservators, and collections management staff have worked together to ensure, for example, that stress on the album’s binding is minimized by creating custom-made display mounts, and they control light exposure through a planned series of page turns every four to six months.
Despite these extra hurdles, the opportunity to present such a significant object is well worth it. “This is so much more than just a book—it’s a star within our permanent collections,” said Rudy.
Be sure to check out the Thesaurus Sacrarum album before it goes temporarily off view in March for cataloging and new photography. The album can be found in Gallery 2500 on Level 2 of the museums.