Magna Carta at the Clark

1215 and All That

By: - Aug 29, 2014

Magna Magna

One of the four surviving copies of the original Magna Carta will be presented at the Clark Art Institute along with key historic documents central to American democracy in a special exhibition, Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution, opening on September 6. The exhibition, on view through November 2, unites Magna Carta with several of the important documents of American political thought that it inspired, including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

One of the earliest statements of limited government and individual rights, Magna Carta (Latin for the Great Charter) is the world’s most enduring symbol of the rule of law. Written in Latin listing terms agreed to by England’s King John and sealed on the fields at Runnymede in June 1215, Magna Carta established the principle that no individual is above the law of the land. The drafters of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution looked to the concepts contained in Magna Carta for inspiration as they crafted the foundational documents of American democracy.

Magna Carta comes to the Clark courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln Cathedral as part of the United Kingdom’s preparations for celebrating the document’s 800th anniversary in 2015. The Lincoln Cathedral Exemplar of Magna Carta is widely regarded as the finest extant copy of the document due to the fact that it is written in an ‘official’ hand and has remained at Lincoln since the time of its first issue. The exhibition includes five key documents, all on loan from Williams College, that underscore Magna Carta’s influence on American democratic thinking and the enduring power of the words contained therein.

“While most of the original sixty-three clauses of the document deal with archaic issues that are read as curiosities today, Magna Carta set forth concepts of justice—including due process, trial by jury, and civil rights—that remain fundamental principles in modern democratic society,” said Michael Conforti, director of the Clark. “The Clark is honored to have the rare opportunity to present Magna Carta alongside some of the most significant documents of American democracy.” 

 The other documents in the exhibition include a broadside original of the Declaration of Independence printed on July 4, 1776 that is one of twenty-six known surviving copies; a draft of the United States Constitution annotated by George Mason, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention; an 1863 official folio copy of the Emancipation Proclamation printed by the U.S. State Department two days after President Abraham Lincoln signed the original; an 1876 original of the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States published by the National Woman Suffrage Association; and a 1949 copy of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights—drafted by a committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who remarked that the document “may well become the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.” These documents are all in the collection of the Chapin and Williams College Libraries. 

 “The notion of being able to view these documents in a New England community that predates American democracy is particularly inspirational and speaks to the very special nature of our home here in Williamstown,” Conforti said. “We are deeply indebted to our colleagues at Chapin Library and Williams College who have generously collaborated with the Clark to create this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to Rep. Cory Atkins and the Massachusetts legislature whose leadership and generous support made it possible to bring this exhibition to the Berkshires.”

Schoolchildren from throughout the region will have special opportunities to view the exhibition through field trip programming coordinated by the Clark’s Education Department. The Clark underwrites the cost of school buses for all one-day field trips to the Institute.

Following its presentation at the Clark, the Lincoln Exemplar will go on view at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. from November 6, 2014, until January 19, 2015. The document began its anniversary tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it is on view through September 1.

In conjunction with the exhibition at the Clark, the Chapin Library at Williams will display a 1622 printed edition of the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, along with other documents relevant to Magna Carta.

Radical Words: From Magna Carta to the Constitution has been organized by the Clark Art Institute, in partnership with Lincoln Cathedral—Bringing Magna Carta to the USA. It is generously supported by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the officers and employees of Allen & Company, Inc., the Gilder Foundation, and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Special Events
The Clark will present a number of special programs in conjunction with the exhibition, including an opening lecture on September 7 at 3 pm by The Very Reverend Philip Buckler, Dean of Lincoln. His illustrated talk, “Living with Magna Carta,” is about the ancient city of Lincoln and how its great medieval cathedral came to house the document. On October 5 at 3 pm, Duncan French, head of Lincoln Law School and professor of international law at England’s University of Lincoln, will talk on the emerging relationship between environmental rights and citizen rights.

In celebration of Radical Words and Williams College’s “The Book Unbound” initiative, the Clark and Williams College will host a series of presentations by faculty and students, exploring the dynamics of language and what “radical words” may mean: historically, politically, culturally, and from the perspectives of different academic disciplines. The free presentations will take place in the Clark’s auditorium (located in the Manton Research Center) on September 18, October 2, October 9, and October 16 at 5 pm. A reception in the Museum Pavilion follows each presentation, and galleries will remain open until 8 pm.

The Clark will also host a film series providing a look at themes tied both to Magna Carta and American democracy. Films include The Adventures of Robin Hood (September 20, 2 pm); 1776 (October 4, 2 pm); and Constitution USA (October 25, 11 am–4:30 pm). Screenings will take place in the Clark’s auditorium and are free to the public.

A special Freedom Family Day on November 2 from 1–4:30 pm will conclude the exhibition, offering a variety of special events and activities for children of all ages. Musical performances, a puppet show, and art-making projects will encourage children to consider the notions of freedom and democracy embodied in the exhibition. The Clark’s galleries will be open with free admission throughout the day.

The Clark will also offer free admission to the exhibition on September 17, 2014 in commemoration of U.S. Constitution Day.

About Magna Carta

Although it has been said that the now-revered document was little more than a cynical attempt by a bad king to buy time from those determined to temper his abuse of power, its influence has been immense. One of the earliest statements of limited government and a point of departure for centuries of thought on individual rights, Magna Carta has become the world’s most enduring symbol of the rule of law.

 The Lincoln Exemplar is one of only four 1215 copies of Magna Carta in existence. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury during much of King John's reign, came from Lincolnshire and was a student at the Cathedral’s school in his youth. Langton played a crucial role in the dispute with the king and in the drafting of Magna Carta. Both he and the Bishop of Lincoln, Hugh of Wells, were present at Runnymede when King John endorsed and sealed the document and they presumably brought it back to Lincoln Cathedral, where it has been housed ever since.

Two copies of Magna Carta are held by the British Library and one by Salisbury Cathedral. All four of the original surviving 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts will be brought together for the first time in history at a three-day event celebrating the 800th anniversary hosted at the British Library from February 2–4, 2015.

About Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral is widely considered the finest Gothic cathedral in Europe. It was consecrated in 1092 and reconstructed in the Gothic style starting in the late twelfth century after being damaged by fires and an earthquake. The city of Lincoln is also home to Lincoln Castle, built by William the Conqueror and currently undergoing major renovation. These renovations will include a new interpretation center for Magna Carta, which will be unveiled in 2015 as part of the 800th anniversary celebrations for this historic document.