When curator Judy Dietz was researching an exhibition in 1998, she made a unique find.  Dietz was working as a registrar with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, a museum position which entails choosing pieces for future exhibits and preserving artwork. She was working on an exhibit that would be called An Expression of Faith. It was set to feature early European religious art brought to Halifax in the mid-19th century by its first Roman Catholic Archbishop, William Walsh. Dietz was searching around Halifax for materials to round out the exhibition—perhaps an illuminated manuscript.

Sitting on a dusty shelf in the Saint Mary’s University Library she found a 400-year old illustrated book in poor condition. Nobody knew anything about it, except that it had been donated by the Archdiocese in the 1970s, and that it had come to Halifax with Archbishop Walsh. While it was too fragile to be included in that year’s exhibition, Dietz nevertheless took note, and planned to return and study it in more depth.

The results of that chance discovery, and Dietz’s subsequent 15-year research of the manuscript, are on view now (contuing through October 29) Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: the major exhibition Centuries of Silence: The Discovery of The Salzinnes Antiphonal. What began as part of her studies for a master’s degree in history at SMU continued until after her retirement from AGNS. She identified the manuscript as an antiphonal, a book of choral music, from the Salzinnes Abbey in Namur, Belgium. What’s more, she discovered that this manuscript, which had lain unnoticed for so long, was unique, not in Nova Scotia or even Canada, but in the world.

This 16th century masterpiece is the only known antiphonal to feature full-page illuminations. It records the life of the abbey in the mid-1500’s, including the names and family crests of several of the nuns, as well as the Abbey’s patrons. Dietz, after working with collaborators across Europe and North America, was able to trace the family histories of many of these women, who came from noble families in what is now the Wallonia region of Belgium.

Over the course of her research she travelled to Namur, and to museums in Europe and the United States, tracing the story of this remarkable artifact. It has been an incredible journey. She stayed at a castle in Namur, and researched in the Vatican archives. “So many doors were opened,” she said, “and so many people were willing to go out of their way to help.”

More than a decade of research has paid off in the form of a remarkable exhibition. In order to give a sense of the context in which the manuscript was used, and to paint a picture of the late middle ages in Europe, and life in a convent, Dietz has borrowed religious art from nine institutions in Belgium, from private collections, and from Canadian museums. There are portraits of abbesses, prints and paintings depicting the area around Namur, even Papal Bulls, statements conveying papal protection on the Abbey, from the early 13th century. Due to Dietz’s efforts, the antiphonal was fully restored in a painstaking process by the Canadian Conservation Institute, and over 30 other works included in the exhibition were restored as well, here in Canada and in Belgium.

An international team of researchers led by scholars from McGill University have transcribed the chants and songs from the antiphonal into modern musical notation, and one of the leading choirs in Belgium will perform them in Halifax at a concert this autumn. An educational section of the exhibition shows how illuminated manuscripts were made, and the entire manuscript has been digitally photographed so that all of the beautiful illuminations are available for viewing. It is a tour-de-force exhibition, and an internationally important project that started because one individual persevered in following the thread of their curiosity.

 

Ray Cronin is a writer and curator with over 20 years’ experience working in the visual arts. A former director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, he is the founding curator of the Sobey Art Award.