Alumnus’ Gift Takes Students Back to Medieval Times

By Irene Gashurov

Last November, Voelkle gave a talk in Special Collections about the facsimiles and originals.

Above: Last November, Voelkle gave a talk in Special Collections about the facsimiles and originals.

In August 2018, Binghamton University Libraries announced a gift of fine facsimiles of illuminated medieval manuscripts bestowed by William (“Bill”) Voelkle ’61, curator emeritus of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

The 21 stunning facsimiles include such treasures as The Crusader Bible, made in Paris in the 1240s; Las Huelgas Apocalypse (1220), the largest surviving Spanish illuminated commentary on the Apocalypse; and a sixth-century gospel manuscript on purple parchment known as the Rossano Gospels. The facsimiles are from Voelkle’s private collection, half of which are replicas of manuscripts from the Morgan Library, where he served as head of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The facsimiles are modern copies of original medieval manuscripts that date from the sixth to 16th centuries. Fashioned with real gold leaf and a preponderance of images in intense colors, they are in every way impressive surrogates of the originals, down to the pages that sound like fine parchment when they are turned.

With the age of buying such masterpieces long over, the fragile originals created before the advent of printing belong to the great museums and libraries, where they are kept in climate-controlled vaults. This was not how these books were meant to be used, said Voelkle. To be fully appreciated, a manuscript must be read through, page by page, to reveal its whole system of ornamentation and writing.

Scan of a page of the donated manuscript

Above: A page from the facsimile of The Crusader Bible.

“The manuscript is like a symphony; it has many movements,” said Voelkle. “So when you go through it, you can see where the interest is placed, how it relates to the past. You don’t get the same understanding of how the book works with slides. With a facsimile, you get the totality.”

In their time, readers, albeit the privileged few, held up these devotional books and prayed with them, organized their lives around them and learned to read with them. Bridget Whearty, assistant professor of English at Binghamton University, said having the facsimiles in your hands gives a sense of the way medieval readers would have interacted with them.

“As a reader, you have to let the book control you a little bit,” said Whearty. “And that’s what facsimiles give us: a gateway into another world.”

A Turning Point at Harpur College

A different world is precisely what Voelkle encountered when he enrolled in Kenneth Lindsay’s Art 101 survey course at Harpur College in the late 1950s. The fine arts were then the furthest thing from Voelkle’s mind. An Endicott native, he eschewed the popular trend of working at IBM and chose to pursue a degree in mathematics at Harpur College. The Lindsay course, which he took to fulfill a humanities requirement, was transformative.

In a semester, he learned about the history of civilization, from cave painting to the 20th century. Voelkle said Lindsay was an inspirational teacher, drawing from his experience as a Monuments Man, who with his recovery team searched for places where Nazis had hidden Europe’s treasures and who occasionally used the photographic collection of these treasures for his classes. After a second course with Lindsay on Northern Renaissance painting, in which he learned about the iconography and the hidden symbolism of the artworks, Voelkle was hooked.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, Voelkle stayed at Harpur College for a fifth year, taking all of the art history classes that were offered to prepare for graduate work at Columbia University. During the summers he worked at Harpur, where he mounted his first exhibition in 1963: "Dutch and Flemish Drawings of the 16th and 17th Centuries,” 37 exquisite facsimiles of drawings from the Rijksmuseum, “was an omen of things to come,” Voelkle said.

After he received his master’s degree in art history from Columbia University in 1965, Voelkle returned to Binghamton to work on his dissertation, teaching two courses in art history at the University, the very courses that had converted him to a life in the arts. A job opportunity called him back to New York City when John Plummer, his former instructor at Columbia, asked him to work as his assistant at the Morgan Library, where Plummer was curator of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime position at one of the great hubs of manuscript scholarship,” Voelkle said, who then worked his way up from assistant to head of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. “For me, it was kind of a book paradise. And consequently, I stayed at the Morgan for 50 years. It’s the longest enduring curatorship in the history of the Morgan.”

Over five decades, Voelkle produced more than 60 publications, including exhibition catalogs, Morgan Library publications, commentaries about particular manuscript books such as The Crusader Bible, articles in scholarly journals and entries in encyclopedias and books. He curated dozens of exhibitions at the Morgan and elsewhere, including an exhibition at the Binghamton University Art Museum in 2014 on the Spanish Forger, an unidentified individual who painted medieval-looking miniatures on period vellum in the late 19th into the early 20th centuries. He also taught art history courses at New York University, gave seminars at the Morgan and hosted groups of students.

Among his accomplishments is overseeing the development of CORSAIR, Morgan’s online catalog that has a database of more than 60,000 digital images searchable by keyword and subject, and makes collections at the Morgan instantly available to the largest possible audience worldwide at no cost.

Named curator emeritus upon his retirement from the Morgan Library in 2017, Voelkle kept his affiliations with Binghamton University. He has donated books to Special Collections and the circulating collection of the Libraries, given numerous courses and lectures on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and art to Binghamton students at the Morgan Library, and conducted tours for them of exhibitions, as well as historic tours of the McKim building, known as “Mr. Morgan’s Library.” He has also regularly gifted the University’s Art Museum with pieces from his collection, contributed to the Lindsay Room at the Art Museum and donated a collection of 10,000 slides of Morgan manuscripts.

When Voelkle presented the Libraries with his collection of facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts, his intent was for Binghamton students to learn from these marvelous objects in situ. They have already been utilized for that purpose this past semester in Whearty’s History of the Book class, in collaboration with Blythe Roveland-Brenton ’83, head of Special Collections. In November, Voelkle visited the History of the Book Class and gave a talk in Special Collections about the facsimiles and originals.

“The facsimile is a multifaceted object: an experiential connection to the past,” Whearty said. “We get to look at different levels of labor that went into the book that we’re holding in Special Collections. The scribes are part of that story, the illuminators are part of that story, as are the photographers and museum curators. And Bill is part of this story.”

To acknowledge a lifetime of service to the University, the Alumni Association will present Voelkle with a Medal of Distinguished Service in May. He received the Harpur College Distinguished Alumni Award at the 2012 Recognition Ceremony for the Division of Fine Arts and Humanities.

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Last Updated: 1/29/19