As a young man, John Pierpont Morgan fancied himself a bit of a collector. It was a gentleman’s game, an armchair safari seeking the rare and elusive. Prize catches were displayed on shelves and in cases, rather than taxidermied and hung over fireplaces.
He accumulated a small group of drawings and some autographs of literary and historical interest. It was something the rich and well educated did. Over time, he developed a library of volumes bound in leather with gold leaf filigree, possibly never read or meant to be, but signaling taste and erudition. Then, in 1890, when Morgan was in his 50s, his father died. Suddenly he was in charge of a huge fortune and successful businesses whose gears were already turning and churning out reliable streams of profit. J.P. Morgan turned his attention to serious collecting, focused largely on books, manuscripts and the history of the written word, and amassed an Aladdin’s cave of riches.
“Treasures from the Vault” is an ongoing series at the Morgan Library & Museum; the current selections will be on view through July 10th. Interesting rotating exhibitions are on display all the time, highlighting a single theme, artist or epoch. But, luckily for us, the curators also turn their eyes to the permanent collection and choose works for display. These “treasure” shows change, but never fail to dazzle.
Beyond the temporary exhibitions galleries, visitors can step up a few stairs into the original 1906 building and enter a different realm. The rotunda gallery, with its marble columns, soaring domed ceiling and intricate mosaics, displays important historical letters and documents.
To the west, Pierpont Morgan’s red damask and bookshelf-lined study is filled with Renaissance paintings, lush furnishings, and most of all, books. It’s fun to peer through lattice-fronted cabinets and spot early copies of famous novels or renowned scientific works. Capturing center stage, just below an imposing portrait of Morgan, is a stunning French, 15th century “Book of Hours,” opened to a page sure to enchant bibliophiles. St. Luke in his study pens a script with one hand, and turns the pages of a book with another. The opulent volume whispers not just of its sacred messages but of the wealth of those who’ve possessed it.
The Vault Room, where things even more precious were once locked behind a thick steel door, is just off to the side and opened now, for curious eyes. The North Room traces the written word back even further with a fascinating collection of cuneiform tablets, hieroglyph covered sculptures, and carved cylinder seals.
Probably the most breathtaking is the East Room, both for its beauty and for the riches within. Floor to ceiling shelves house the some of the rarest and most valuable books ever created. The Morgan is the only institution in the world to own three Gutenberg Bibles. Printed in 1454-55, it’s the first major example of the use of moveable type, and the first mass produced book in the Western world. There are only 21 complete examples extant. One is on view, giving visitors the chance to stand before a book that, rather than recording human history, rewrote it. Glass cases present original music scores by the likes of Mozart and Brahms; annotated, dedicated and doodled upon pages by famous novelists; medieval illuminated manuscripts with meticulously inked glories; and letters from kings and poets that speak of power and beauty.
Even amongst all these, the gem of Morgan’s collection is the Lindau Gospels, on display through May 1st. Unlike any other, it’s an amalgam of styles, centuries, geographies and artists. Very few jeweled books remain intact. They were often looted or taken apart to adorn crowns or fingers. The back cover, made in the 8th century, is a masterpiece of metalwork presenting classic Celtic twisting abstracted animal forms. The text was penned by monks in the Carolingian period (800–924). The front cover, stunningly carved in gold, was designed not just to house or decorate a book, but to tell another version of its story. A peaceful, classically posed Jesus spreads his arms more in welcome than in pain or death. A cross surrounds, extending equally in four directions. It’s lavishly adorned with emeralds and sapphires, rubies and pearls and refers to the gates of Jerusalem and the shapes of cathedrals. Without words, it promises the glories of heaven through the way of the church.
When he purchased it in 1901, Morgan paid a princely $50,000 for the Lindau Gospels. “No price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity,” Morgan reportedly said. While many of today’s billionaires hide their wealth, as well as important examples of the world’s cultural heritage, in tax havens or anonymous freeports, thankfully, we can all visit Morgan’s Library and Museum whenever we want.