Geneva Anderson digs into art

Don’t miss the Magna Carta at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor–53 lines written on parchment 800 years ago that shaped the course of democracy– through Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dr. James Ganz, curator Achenberg Foundation for Graphic Arts, discusses the Magna Carta which is one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy. An original copy of the Magna Carta, just one of four in existence in on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through June 5, 2011. Photo: courtesy Tom Jung Photography

An original Magna Carta (Great Charter of English Liberties), one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy, is on display at the Legion of Honor through June 5, 2011.  Magna Carta’s declaration that no free man should be imprisoned without due process underlies the development of common law in England as well as the concepts of individual liberty and constitutional government that created the United States. 

“This is an extremely rare public appearance for this particular Magna Carta.  This is its first public display on this continent in its nearly 800-year history” explained Dr. James Ganz, Curator of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, who coordinated the installation at the Legion of Honor.  “It’s something that in America has always been cited as an important precedent for certain aspects of our Bill of Rights.”   

This Magna Carta, presented with an English translation, is on loan to the Legion of Honor from the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, England.  Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede near Windsor on June 15, 1215 by King John and was reissued throughout the 13th century by England’s rulers.   The charter on display in San Francisco is one of the Bodleian’s three originals of the solemn reissue of November 1217.  No master-prototype has survived from King John’s 1215 ceremony at Runnymede but there are seventeen surviving original manuscripts of Magna Carta from the thirteenth century that are official engrossments, or exemplifications of the Latin text from the Royal Chancery bearing the ruler’s seal. 

The Magna Carta’s purpose was to literally get the King’s word out in tangible form, safeguarded and sealed, so that it could be dispatched to county seats and churches where it was read aloud and then displayed.  In 13thcentury England, this required the preparation of vellum from goat or sheepskin, the preparation of ink from oak galls and a scribe with exceptional quill-wielding penmanship.  Official copies were all made in the same fashion and then sealed and folded into small packets for secure travel and delivery.  The Magna Carta on display at the Legion was sent out by the royal record office to Gloucestershire in 1217 and most likely housed at St. Peter’s Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral). 

Magna Carta, 1217, on display at the Legion of Honor, has been restored on the upper left and right corners and has evidence of being folded 5 times over. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The document is displayed in Gallery 3 under the Legion’s prized Mudéjar ceiling from Toledo, dating from approximately 1500, and is surrounded by the gallery’s religious paintings from the 16th century.  Curator James Ganz admits the right atmosphere was hard to find.  “I’ll tell you, this gallery is 250 to 300 years off.  There’s not an artist here, or even his grandfather, who was alive when this was signed.  Still, this is the medieval world.”

The large Plexiglas showcase holds a special climate-controlled frame in which sits the sheet of parchment roughly sixteen inches wide and twelve inches high.  The Magna Carta contains fifty-six lines of hand-inscribed tiny medieval Latin text that is chock full of abbreviations, the being to save space so as to fit all the text on one sheet of large parchment. It still bears its original crease marks from being folded for secure delivery and the green wax seal of William Marshal the elder, a guardian of the boy King Henry III, who was then in power.

“When I was told we’d have the Magna Carta, I obviously wanted to display the translation as well,” explained Ganz.  “I had no idea that it would come out to 16 pages on double-spaced text in English.  We actually have a couple of complete translations handcuffed to a bench and if you really want to wade through the 1217 Magna Carta, we invite you to have a seat and go for it.  There’s a lot of arcane and esoteric stuff in it and it’s not easy going.  Most of it is completely irrelevant to the 21st century, even to the 18th century for that matter.”

Many clauses of the Magna Carta pertain to mundane matters specific to their place and time: fishing rights on the rivers Thames and Medway, knights’ duties on castle guard and gifts of lands to abbeys. The first clause addresses the rights of the church; subsequent language protects widows, though women are denied the right to accuse murderers except at the deaths of their own husbands.  Over nearly eight hundred years, almost all of the Magna Carta’s clauses have been abandoned or superseded, yet it has continued to serve as a model and an inspiration, embodying the highest ideals in the governance of a state: the rule of law is higher than a king; rights and liberties belong to all and forever.

Legacy:  Only three of the Magna Carta’s original phrases are still law. One defends the freedom and rights of the English church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, but the third is the most famous:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled . nor will we proceed with force against him . except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

This statement of principle, buried deep in Magna Carta, was given no particular prominence in 1215, but its intrinsic adaptability has allowed succeeding generations to reinterpret it for their own purposes and this has ensured its longevity. In the fourteenth century Parliament saw it as guaranteeing trial by jury. Sir Edward Coke interpreted it as a declaration of individual liberty in his conflict with the early Stuart kings and it echoes in the American Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Additional Resources:    On May 26, 2011, KQED Forum host Dave Iverson interviewed Richard Ovenden, associate director and keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which loaned the Magna Carta to the Legion for the exhibit.

The British Library has mounted an excellent online information hub on their copy of the 1215 Magna Carta which includes a translator that lets you translate from Latin “as you go” using an online viewer magnifier.  The site also contains  extensive background on how and why the Magna Carta was written, what it was like in 13th-century England and a fabulous section addressing how various people were affected by Magna Carta—you can click on King John, King Henry III, Pope Innocent III, William Marshal, a scribe, a villain, the free men and more.   

Details: The Legion of Honor Museum is located in Lincoln Park, 34th Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.; closed on Monday.  Viewing Magna Carta is included in the general admission ticket $6-$10 as is the Lod Mosaic on view through July 24, 2011.  There is a $5 surcharge for Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, on view in the lower level galleries of the Legion of Honor through June 5.  Info: (415) 750-3600 or

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