A bottomless repository of culture: on illuminated Medieval manuscripts

There are remarkable riches to be mined from a group of new books


The creation of a manuscript was a collective enterprise. In this marginal image from the manuscript of St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, illuminated at the monastery of Olomouc (now in the Czech Republic) in around 1140, the scribe Hildebertus sends a message to us in the book he has transcribed, depicting himself with his apprentice Everwinus, who is drawing scrollwork below. The inscription—Pessime mus, saepius me provocas ad iram. Ut te deus perdat (Wicked mouse, you always make me angry. God damn you)—suggests the intended readers knew them both, were aware of the mice, and would enjoy the joke

These six books carry a considerable weight of scholarship, which also amounts to a 15kg load over nearly half a metre of bookshelf. Three are catalogues and represent the collaborative effort of a large number of scholars, curators, conservators and scientists; two are demonstrations of personal erudition gained after a lifetime of meticulous and ground-breaking investigation; and one is a traditional coffee-table book. All of them build on a recent history of the study of illuminated manuscripts that has grown in momentum in tandem with the age of post-analogue reproduction to become the world of the modern facsimile and digital database. Both these media strive to create an information-based hyper-reality, but can never replace the intimate relationship between a reader and a real manuscript or incunable (early printed book).

During the 1950s the work of François Masai and Bob Delaissé established the interpretation of the book as an object through codicology—the study of the manuscript book from its parchment and script to the social and economic implications of its use, decoration and dissemination. This approach complements the work of the so-called French post-structuralists, in particular Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, in its search for evidence within the unwritten as well as the written text. It could even be said to have acted as a precursor to the development of new strategies for investigating works of art in the same way that Hanns Swarzenzki’s extraordinary (and largely textless book) Monuments of Romanesque Art (1954) allowed the material culture of the past to speak through binary opposition to create a dialogue between the viewer and the object. This almost Foucauldian technique has dominated manuscript studies for the past half century. It treats the manuscript or incunable (the object) as the text, be it from the point of view of the sewing of the binding or the decisions made about which pictures to include in, let us say, a Bible. In this way information is teased out that is not otherwise evident and that may not relate to the apparent purpose of the book.

In this respect the first of the catalogues, Colour, which commemorates the exhibition held last year at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is part of this continuity. The study of illuminated manuscripts has in some ways lagged behind in the field of scientific investigation of materials and techniques, an area where monumental painting on wall, panel and canvas progressed quickly through the utilisation of technological breakthroughs. This catalogue provides a welcome boost to manuscript scholarship in this area. It is the product of the Cambridge Miniare project, which is dedicated to the non-invasive scientific analysis of illuminated manuscripts. The project has brought together scholars and conservators from many countries, and its protocols develop the principles of codicological research championed by Delaissé by expanding the traditional areas of investigation to include scientific analysis. This has enabled the known documentary sources for methods, materials and techniques of illumination to be confirmed, but it also reveals changing patterns of preference and local practices.

It is now possible, for instance, to confirm that Venetian illuminators utilised smalt (ground blue glass) as a colour, and that the shift from verdigris green to malachite green can be documented statistically and had occurred by the end of the 14th century. Most importantly the use of egg yolk, as well as the more usual egg white and gum as a binding agent, particularly when using red lead as a pigment, can now be detected.

Chapters which address the alchemical significance of colour, its meanings and the theory of optics act as a balance to the more technical observations and ensure that this book will be a standard point of reference for many years to come. It complements the new cross-disciplinary work being done at the BioArCh research facility in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, which has been using ZooMS technology (zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry) to reveal the types and distribution of animals in Europe that were used in the production of parchment for books in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Whereas the Colour exhibition catalogue would win any prize for elegance and usability, the catalogue of the exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections, despite its roll-call of distinguished and up-and-coming scholars from both sides of the Atlantic, struggles to contain the vast sweep of information that it presents. The text area of 16.5cm by 26.5cm (6in by 10in) makes the extremely useful and informative opening essay, Invoking the Charles, cumbersome even to an interested reader. The ‘Brahmin citizens’ on both sides of the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts, were wealthy Wasps who collected the illuminated manuscripts catalogued here.

Although difficult to handle, Beyond Words is a grand book which brings together the best examples of illuminated manuscripts from the various Harvard University libraries as well as those in public and private institutions in Boston, Medford, Waltham, Watertown and Wellesley. The magnitude of the task has meant that concise introductory texts of a typically “accessible” nature that are designed to explain, for instance, how manuscripts were used by the laity for private devotion vie with sometimes overly long descriptions of a technical nature in the catalogue which tend to display the erudition of the authors rather than make the manuscripts accessible to a larger audience. This impression of mismatched information is compounded by the overly small illustrations within the double-columned catalogue sections, which contrast with the out-of-scale details provided as frontispieces to the introductory texts.

By contrast, the even larger Italian catalogue Le Miniature della Fondazione Giorgio Cini is a masterpiece of design. Clever manipulation of font sizes means that the larger and well-illustrated introductory essays by Federica Toniolo on the broad nature of the collection, and by Massimo Medica on the impulses for collecting, are both informative and readable. This leaves the three-column catalogue to give as much detail as necessary in a professional way while creating mini-biographies of the illuminators, region by region, who are little known outside of the Italian literature. The depth of scholarship here is revealed in the systematic codicological descriptions that support the discursive entries that contextualise each manuscript.

The use of larger than life-size images in all three catalogues is part of a new trend which, consciously or unconsciously, has developed through the digital revolution in photography. The British Library’s The Art of the Bible is perhaps the first book of its kind actually to understand the potential that new digital photography has beyond the high magnification levels now possible (when allowed) through the internet. More and more free-on-the-web digital image libraries have been made available since the creation of the pioneering French Gallica and Mandragore projects. Rivalry between countries and institutions, partly shamed into making accessible their materials through these French initiatives, have led to the funding of a whole spate of new databases. The best allow high magnification and interrogation of both text and images; the worst are often used as weapons by librarians to prevent researchers from viewing the most famous of the books in their care.

Certainly, fewer and fewer people will need to handle manuscripts and incunables themselves in the future because of these databases and publications, although there is little evidence that handling by scholars has ever been a serious issue of conservation other than in the preservation of ancient bindings. In The Art of the Bible, digital photography lets us see, in colour, a single 2.5cm figure from the Theodore Psalter (made in 1066) as a 25cm-high image of an old man: “the best of whose years is but trouble and sorrow” (Psalm 90:10). In the past his expression and modelling would have been invisible unless viewed through a magnifying glass.

Combined with a judicious and well-edited text confident enough about what is known in the literature not to burden the reader with unnecessary detail—something the Cini catalogue also strives to achieve in a different way—The Art of the Bible is a book designed to meet that now embedded government funding directive of accessibility for the public, and it succeeds in doing so very well.

Like The Art of the Bible, Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is designed to inspire. It uses the now familiar model of Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects (2012), but concentrates on just 12 manuscripts as case studies, ranging from the Gospels of St Augustine in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, to the Beatus Apocalypse in the Morgan Library, New York, and the Hengwrt Chaucer in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Whereas MacGregor’s book has its post-modern pseudo-ironical marketing ploy embedded in the fact that the objects were initially described verbally on the radio and then made available as a book, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts reads like a script waiting for a television serial. It allows us to escape into the world of investigative palaeographers, following in their footsteps as one would the exploits of Sherlock Holmes.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is the most innovative of the books discussed here in terms of its style of writing, and the joy in de Hamel’s prose is palpable. His words almost fall over themselves in his desire to tell everyone how important and wonderful these illuminated manuscripts are and what his discoveries mean. Despite its formidable two-inch thickness, it is the book that should be recommended for all levels of reader and, like MacGregor’s work, may inspire many more people to understand and appreciate these manuscripts as great cultural monuments of European civilisation than any other book reviewed here.

Last, but not least, is Jonathan Alexander’s The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy. The product of a lifetime’s scholarship, it is beautifully designed, as befits the subject matter. It appears at the same time as Myra Orth’s posthumously published survey of manuscripts illuminated in France, Renaissance Manuscripts: the Sixteenth Century (2016), and, like it, will become the standard English text on which scholars will now base their own work.

Alexander’s book plan makes little concession to fashion or technological innovations, but self-consciously attempts to distil information that has never been presented in such a comprehensive way in English about the cultural phenomenon that is the Italian Renaissance book (whether handwritten or printed). The first five chapters are arranged by region and then century, and are followed by chapters on the illumination of printed books, patronage and trade, and the relationship of humanistic texts to the then newly rediscovered Greek and Hebrew traditions.

The emphasis on Italy in its modern geographical configuration may surprise those familiar with the received view of Italy as a relatively modern national entity. It is one of the lessons of this book, however, that the distinctive style of both the humanistic script itself and of the more localised, often illusionistic, illumination should be identified with the whole of the Italian peninsula, and forms an integral part of what we call the Renaissance. The continuities embedded in Italian Renaissance book illumination stem from the Middle Ages as much as they do form a desire to emulate and surpass the art of the ancient world. This book is a fitting tribute to the humanistic tradition of scholarship, book production and ownership that speaks to a community of scholars and humanists that stretches back in time as well as into the future. • M.A. Michael is the professorial research fellow of the University of Glasgow. He has written widely on illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and wall and panel painting in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most recently he was consultant curator and editor of the exhibition Opus Anglicanum: English Medieval Embroidery at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Colour: the Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts

Stella Panayotova, with Deirdre Jackson, Paola Ricciardi et al

Harvey Miller/Brepols Publishers, 420pp, €75 (hb)

Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis and Nancy Netzer

University of Chicago Press in association with the McCullen Museum of Art, 378pp, $85 (hb)

Le Miniature della Fondazione Giorgio Cini

Massimo Medica and Federica Toniolo with Alessandro Martoni

Silvana Editoriale, 544pp €75 (hb)

The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle

Thames & Hudson in association with the British Library, 336pp, £60 (hb)

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

Christopher de Hamel

Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 632pp, £30 (hb)

The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy

Jonathan J.G. Alexander

Yale University Press, 400pp, £50 (hb)