Sir Thomas More

Pages from Sir Thomas More's prayer book. (Image courtesy the Beinecke / October 23, 2013)

Humans have been communicating using pictures for at least 40,000 years — far longer than they have with alphabets and language. Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has been in existence for only 50 of those years, but the voluminous holdings there take in the full Monty of that picture-making.

"The Power of Pictures," the third and final in a series of large exhibitions celebrating the Beinecke's 50th anniversary and its remarkable collections, is a massive buffet of "pictures" (drawings, notebooks, sketchbooks, posters, engravings, lithographs, photographs, comic books, maps, etc.) now on view through Dec. 16. It is intended, says coordinating curator George Miles, to "whet the appetites of students, scholars and visitors to explore the Beinecke in more depth" and to examine "how images shape our thoughts and how they might subtly influence us in other ways."

On a less rarefied level, however, "The Power of Pictures" is the equivalent of a "greatest hits" compilation that, rightfully, establishes the Beinecke as one of the finest and least stodgy institutions of its kind in the world. And, as the deejay says, the hits just keep on coming.

Among the dazzling displays, for example, is a prayer book (Hore Beate Marie ad vsum ecclesie Sarisburiensis…) owned by Sir Thomas "Utopia" More. This copy can be said to possess the actual blood, sweat and tears of a true religious martyr, having been with More in the Tower of London when he was awaiting trial for treason in 1535 (he was beheaded that same year). More used the illustrations of Christ's life as inspiration for a "Godly meditation" that he inscribed in ink along the book's margins. Nearby, in a section called "Picturing the Transcendent — Iconography," Miles has placed similar objects, such as two 19th-century pen-and-ink drawings by Haida artist Johnny Kit-Elswa of a heraldic raven and a sparrow hawk; two Armenian Gospels; and a Latin missal dating to 1270 (the oldest item in the exhibition).

And that's just for starters. Actually, Miles starts the exhibit by acknowledging the sweep of antiquity it embraces. The first objects one sees are two books that document the cave paintings in southern Europe — the oldest known pictographs of humankind.

"We couldn't bring the caves here, so these books were our attempt to show the earliest pictures," said Miles, who worked with six other Beinecke curators to pull this together. "I could have made just as big a show with the stuff I didn't use."

Further along, "The Power of Pictures" slowly widens, like a mountain stream that suddenly morphs into whitewater rapids. By the time you make your way upstairs — "The Power of Pictures" takes up both floors of the Beinecke — it has become a waterfall, plopping iconic treasures in your lap at such a clip you can barely catch your breath: Charles Dickens' hand-annotated illustrations for The Pickwick Papers; Frank O'Hara's "Ode to Willem de Kooning," illustrated by de Kooning; Kurt Schwitters' Merz. 14/15; collage novels by Max Ernst; magazine artwork by Salvador Dali and Man Ray; a series of 12 playful posters by Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, counterbalanced by six viscerally militant posters by Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party's in-house illustrator; Zap Comix; illustrations from hippie magazines Oz (U.K.) and Actuel (France); and, the most recent acquisition, selections from the John Holmstrom Papers and Punk Magazine Archive. Holmstrom grew up in Cheshire and, with fellow Cheshire native Legs McNeil, founded Punk in 1975.

The most provocative and, thus, crowd-pleasing section can be found in the ground floor north case, where "Public Commemoration," "Illustrated Travels," "Domestic Scenes " and "Political Caricature and Commentary" are housed. Particulary gut-wrenching is a 1731 publication from Amsterdam that condemns "Sodomites" in a series of illustrations that depict the fall from grace of two gay men, who are arrested for embracing in the street, tried and burned at the stake. The irony, of course, is that Amsterdam is, three centuries later, a gay Mecca.

Also gripping are original sketches from 1839 of some Amistad defendants, courtroom sketches from the New Haven Black Panther trial of Bobby Seale and Erika Huggins, photographs from a UFW march, others of the kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, three original illustrations of the slave trade by Tom Feelings, Garry "Doonesbury" Trudeau's notebooks and Robert Osborn's cartoon of Richard Nixon with blood on his hands.

A Web version of the show can be found here.

But you really should see these actual artifacts, with all their nicks and stains and, yes, power.

The Power of Pictures

On view through Dec. 16, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, 121 Wall St., New Haven, (203) 432-2977,


Images courtesy the Beinecke