Glasgow University Library, is being widely reproduced for the public.
What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book, by James Elkins, is out this month from Laboratory Books, an independent publisher based in Astoria, Queens. Elkins is the E.C. Chadbourne Professor in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and he gives commentary on the meaning, imagery, and art historical context of each of the 52 round watercolors.
Elkins first encountered the small volume while he was researching alchemy, as the John Ferguson Collection in Glasgow is one of the largest with such material. “They have some famous and well-studied books, but like most large collections, they also have manuscripts, and those tend to be less well known,” he told Hyperallergic. During the week that he examined the collection’s holdings, he noticed an object in the catalog with neither author, title, subject, or date. “So I just asked to see it, and that’s how I discovered the manuscript,” he said. “I tell this story to recommend real archival research to younger scholars: there are still undiscovered countries out there!”
The sole words in MS Ferguson 115 are in a Latin inscription that reads: “Work of Natural Magic, in which the Miracles of Pneumo–cosmic Nature are Painted with a Brush. Fully engraved by an Ape of Nature, following Nature’s universal Catholic Prototype, and dedicated to the eternal memory of the king.” The cryptic writing offers little on the identity of the author. In What Heaven Looks Like, Elkins considers the artist as a woman. He writes:
I think it was created by a woman who imagined what she saw in the ends of firewood logs. In one picture the wood is fresh and green, in another old and cracked, in a third moldy and peeling. From that I deduce she worked at her project over a long period, perhaps years. I think she lived alone, perhaps high up on a forested hillside — at least that is how I imagine her. I have written this book to try to understand what she may have felt and thought.
Although Elkins’s writing tackles mythology, Baroque religious art, Catholicism, and the darkness that creeps into these biblical and enigmatic paintings, the narrative is very accessible to read, divided into short essays for each plate. Rather than deciphering the paintings, What Heaven Looks Like is at its core about spending time with art. “It seems like something people would naturally do, but the art world and academia are very rushed these days,” he said, adding that he used to teach a class where students picked a painting and copied it for 14 weeks. “By the end of the semester most of them had been transformed by the experience. Seeing takes time, even though — perhaps especially because — it seems to be instantaneous.”
What Heaven Looks Like: Comments on a Strange Wordless Book by James Elkins is out now from Laboratory Books.
Powered by WPeMatico