Arts & Culture

Evolution of a sacred text made visible at Houghton

4 min read

When Jane Cheng ’09 arrived at Harvard four years ago, her interest in book conservation led to a job at the Weissman Preservation Center, and it was that job that led her to the medieval text that would become the subject of both her senior thesis and a new exhibition organized by Cheng at Houghton Library.

The exhibition, “Imitation as Innovation: The Imitatio Christi, 1450-1550,” focuses on Imitatio Christi, a 15th century devotional tract, and one of the most widely read books of all time. The exhibition attempts to demonstrate the transformative effect different material interpretations of the text — at various times viewed as a guidebook for Christian life, a schoolbook, a prayer book, and a meditation on religious philosophy — have had on its graphic representations.

“The interpretations over the centuries have run the gamut,” said Cheng. “One of the most interesting things about the extensive collection at Houghton is that you come upon so many copies of the same text, yet they’re all so very different. In the books themselves you can clearly see the ways in which its meaning is subtly transformed.”

Cheng’s interest in the Imitatio Christi was initially sparked when, while working at the Weissman Center, she was sent to Houghton to perform preservation work. As she left the library, Cheng recalled, she stumbled upon a shelf that appeared empty, but that actually held a number of extremely small books. As she examined the books, Cheng realized they were all different versions of the same text — the Imitatio Christi.

After that first encounter, Cheng spent valuable summers working in book history in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and took classes in intellectual and art history to gather the necessary background for both her thesis and the exhibition. “Ultimately, I decided to focus on the years 1450 to 1550, because that’s the period when the book became the most popular,” Cheng said. “It’s also the period when the Imitatio Christi’s meaning changed the most, because the way people looked at the world during that time was changing. It’s incredible how such change is visible in representations of a work that people read, paradoxically, as a core indicator of continuity.”

Written in about 1420 as part of the Modern Devotion movement, the Imitatio Christi began as a spiritual volume largely intended for monks, but quickly gained popularity among lay people as the new technology of printing allowed for an increasingly wide distribution. “In some ways, the book is an assembly of many of the currents of thought about the nature of religion that were popular at the time,” Cheng said. “The Modern Devotion movement wasn’t concerned with being scholarly or esoteric, but was rather focused on bringing people into a more personal relationship with their religion.”

“The Imitatio Christi is one of the most widely read and frequently printed and translated books of all time,” said Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture and Cheng’s thesis adviser.  “You could call it the Harry Potter of the 15th and 16th centuries, except it’s a rather slim volume, and altogether unsensational in content.

“Its importance for the history of religion, not only in Europe, but also worldwide, can hardly be underestimated,” Hamburger continued. “It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that Harvard’s unrivaled resources for the study of its printing history have never previously been exploited — until Jane came along.”

Examining the Imitatio Christi through the lens of traditional bibliography and art history, as Cheng did, would have been impressive enough, Hamburger said, but Cheng also produced an extensive catalog of the exhibition, meaning she completed almost twice the work of a regular thesis.

“But thanks to a lot of help from the Houghton Library and its wonderful staff, she learned more than twice as much,” Hamburger added. “I hope that a lot of people will go to see the exhibition and also to admire Jane’s catalog.”

In all, Cheng said, the exhibition includes 20 different versions of the Imitatio Christi, which illustrate the various transformations of the text. Sections of the exhibition focus on the book’s early manuscripts, the first printed edition, changes in print culture, illustrations, and humanist editions.

Cheng credited her success in designing the exhibition, which included laying out each display case and creating a catalog of exhibition materials, to help she received from library staff.

“The library has been amazing,” Cheng said. “As an undergraduate, I’m not used to doing all the behind-the-scenes-work of creating an exhibition like this. The library has been extremely helpful. It’s really a lucky end to my four years here.”