In any normal year so important and beautiful a work of art as the English Gothic ivory Virgin and Child acquired for The Cloisters would be a natural choice for the cover of this publication. It is a work of the utmost rarity, one of three extant English Gothic ivories, and the perfect pendant for the Bury St. Edmunds Cross, which so magnificently represents the Romanesque period in England at The Cloisters. But this year like the last has not been "any normal year," owing once again to the extraordinary generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, who have given to the Museum an outstanding gift, the Portrait of a Young Woman by Johannes Vermeer. Invested with those special qualities that lift only a very few works of art to the level of the universal masterpiece, the Vermeer clearly and preemptively commands the cover. This haunting picture, one of the fewer than forty autograph works by this great poet among painters, is rare and unusual even within his oeuvre, as it is a bust-length portrait comparable in size and character only to a portrait of a girl by the artist in the Mauritshuis, The Hague. The mysterious and ineffable quality of the Wrightsman portrait led Théophile Thoré, the French critic who rediscovered Vermeer over a century ago, to compare the painting to the Mona Lisa.
Although works of art in the class of Vermeer's Portrait of a Young Woman and the Gothic Virgin and Child are what make a great museum, this publication has the value of revealing that the "whispers" of art history also have their place in an acquisition policy. Some of the more modest examples, whether in the field of archaeology, the decorative arts, or in the form of the briefest notation on paper, are included here, as they all contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces. In turn these "minor" objects and the scholarly research they generate within the curatorial departments help to provide a more complete portrayal of civilizations whose character cannot be fully deduced from contact only with man's highest achievements.