‘A woman of valor, who can find?” Go no further than the Morgan Library’s splendid exhibition “The Book of Ruth: Medieval to Modern,” and you will find an answer in a gallery filled with a series of distinctive manuscripts, each of which tells in its own way the story of the biblical figure revered as King David’s ancestor. The exhibit introduces a stunning new Book of Ruth, an illuminated manuscript rendered by contemporary artist Barbara Wolff.
As the center of the show, Wolff’s work is surrounded by a series of exquisite, illustrated manuscripts that date from the 12th through the 15th centuries. The juxtaposition emphasizes continuity: old or new, all are illuminated with burnished gold and silver. It also highlights changing pictorial styles, as well as evolving interpretations of the story itself.
Which is one reason I began by quoting not from The Book of Ruth, but from Proverbs. Wolff has appended that well-known verse to the text’s conclusion in order to pay tribute to the work and contributions of Ruth, Naomi and all Jewish women throughout history. In doing so, she shows how art can help us read and see old stories anew, even while honoring the many and wide-ranging interpretations that came before.
The basic story itself is well-known. Naomi, an Israelite who had long ago fled with her husband and two sons from famine-ridden Judah to the land of Moab, is in despair after the deaths of both her husband and her two sons. She decides to return, alone, to Judah, counseling her Moabite daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah to remain in Moab with their parental families. Orpah follows her advice, but not Ruth, who famously replies, “Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God.” In other words, she becomes a Jew by Choice. Together the two women go to Bethlehem, arriving in time for the spring harvest. There, Ruth meets Naomi’s wealthy kinsman Boaz, whom she subsequently marries. Their son, Obed, fathered Jesse, who in turn fathered David.
A twist on tradition is visible from the very first step inside the exhibit. Wolff’s “Megillat Ruth,” or “Scroll of Ruth,” is 18 feet long, but instead of rolling up onto a spindle, its joined pages fold together accordion-style. That allows it to stand up and be seen in its entirety, and on both its sides, which is also important — and unusual — as one side’s text is in Hebrew, the other in English, with each side decorated with its own distinctive illustrations.
While the Hebrew side features a rich palette of red, blue, purple and green mixed with illuminated highlights in gold, silver and platinum, the English side has only black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings. Yet the illustrations on both sides emphasize the story of Ruth as a pastoral tale with the springtime grain harvest as its backdrop. On the Hebrew side, for instance, a lush landscape of green fields brimming with grain forms the decorative border that runs across the entire length of the manuscript. The English side features threshing tools as well as a range of household objects typical of a farming village in the era in which the story is set. All these images also serve to connect “The Book of Ruth” to the holiday on which it is traditionally read in synagogues, the harvest festival of Shavuot.
That focus on objects, rather than narrative action, is characteristic of Wolff’s approach to storytelling. Rather than present the story in a series of dramatic scenes, Wolff illustrates the narrative through depictions of specific objects, both natural and man-made, that are suggested by or directly mentioned in the text. Thus, Naomi’s advice to Ruth to “dress festively” for her visit to Boaz is accompanied by a colorful burst of fragrant flowers, plants and perfumed oils — such as almond, lavender and jasmine — that would have been available in the biblical era of the story. Similarly, she represents the wedding of Ruth and Boaz through a vividly striped woven marriage belt decorated with multicolored tassels, silver bells and shells. Neither Ruth’s nor Naomi’s face is visible as they hug in confirmation of their bond, only the massive folds of the Bedouin-style robes that cover them so completely they seem to have melded into one being. Wolff renders all these images with the precision and refinement seen in the illuminated Haggadah and manuscript of “You Renew the Face of the Earth: Psalm 104” that were displayed in her 2015 exhibit at the Morgan.
In that previous exhibit, too, the Morgan displayed examples of medieval manuscripts alongside Wolff’s work in what curator Roger S. Wieck describes as a “conversation” over the centuries. Several of the exquisite medieval examples displayed here tell the story in a series of miniature scenes that extend as if down the leg of a very long capital “I.” That initial, Wieck explains, is the first letter of the first word that begins the Latin translation of the Book of Ruth, “In diebus unius judicis,” or in English, “In the days of one of the judges.” My favorite medieval examples come from the 13th-century Crusader Bible, which presents the story in 16 separate scenes over five separate folios. Each luminous frame is packed with narrative details showing the course of Naomi and Ruth’s journey, followed by the courtship of Ruth and Boaz, and culminating in the birth of their son Obed. And don’t miss the inscriptions in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian that reflect the volume’s different owners through the centuries.
But in turning from Wolff’s “Book of Ruth” to the Crusader Bible and the other Christian manuscripts on display, viewers will detect a major difference. While both Jewish and Christian traditions emphasize genealogy, Wolff makes it clear that Jews honor Ruth as the progenitor of the lineage that will lead to King David. Just as clearly, in Christian tradition, the family tree extends beyond King David to Jesus.
But Wolff’s genealogy adds a new dimension to the Jewish tradition. She pens a graceful, flowing grape vine with each full cluster of fruit labeled with the names of the four foremothers and the other heroines of the Bible. These are the “Women of Valor” exemplified by Ruth, and this is the heritage honored in Wolff’s resplendent manuscript. _
“The Book of Ruth: Medieval to Modern” opened last week and runs through June 14 at the Morgan Library, 225 Madison Ave. (at 36th Street), themorgan.org.