Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius Of Illumination. Exhibition at the British Library 11 November 2011 – 13 March 2012

This is a book review of sorts, as, once this exhibition is over, the catalogue will remain to remind us of its beauties, and at the moment it is a tremendous bargain with online booksellers. The catalogue has three informative essays on the context and provenance of the manuscripts from the Old Royal Library on display, and a briefer essay with image(s) on every item in the exhibition. These catalogue entries are absolutely riveting, describing not only the content of each but also the life it led and what it meant to its owners.

Entering a room full of illuminated manuscripts made me think what a rare privilege it is to be able to do so. Medieval manuscripts are all too rare and precious, the most richly illuminated ones doubly so. They are normally hidden from sight, and even when the volume is produced from its dark, climate controlled place in the stacks, the pages still have to be opened before the images and decoration are revealed. They contain some of the most exquisite and astonishing visual art that has ever been created, and they can confound our ideas about the culture, creativity and sensibility of the Middle Ages. We are now used to being able to walk through the door of the National Gallery, or whatever our equivalent is, and see the finest works of art on the walls at any time, or to going on holiday to Florence or Venice and see them on the walls and ceilings of buildings open to all – the painting is visible and public. It is also exposed to the climate and pollution, and the working of time and exposure on the materials. Illuminated manuscripts are private luxury possessions, and kept hidden away. When brought out of the stack, they are for one-to-one contemplation. These manuscripts in particular have been miraculously preserved as part of a royal collection, and the images are revealed to us as fresh and vibrant as when they were created. By finding their way into the possession of kings, their survival is assured. (Not all manuscripts have fared so well, and I am curious now to read some of the research on what proportion of manuscripts have come down to us – very small, I believe).

The study of manuscripts is complex and fascinating, and embraces the different styles of script and the choice and significance of content, but the focus here is on the decoration of the manuscripts – the historiation of initial letters, the display of both ownership and fantasy in decorated borders, the inclusion of exquisitely detailed miniatures. The materials used are rare and precious, including gold and lapis lazuli. Some particularly sumptuous manuscripts were lettered in gold on purple washed parchment or vellum. The emphasis of this collection is the location of these manuscripts in a royal setting. There are more workaday manuscripts in other collections, but these speak of status and luxury, and the exchange and acquisition of precious items fit for kingship and aristocracy.

Acquisition was rather sporadic and occasional, until the reign of Edward IV. He put together a body of the most astonishingly beautiful large-scale manuscripts, created in Flanders in the Burgundian style, which forms the centre-piece of the exhibition. This collection has to be a personal symbol of his kingship – Edward IV emerged from the War of the Roses, won his crown crushingly in battle with the Lancastrian cause, and the existence of this collection shows that he wanted his reign to emerge from chaos and war to stand for loftier values of culture, civilisation and learning. The collection contains history, biblical and devotional works and the classical world. They are all of substantial size, and move beyond the idea of the book as personal possession – they are for public display. In one of the manuscripts on show, the Miroir Historial of Vincent of Beauvais, there is a miniature of the author creating it, and we see in the background the image of beautifully bound books on display – a publicly visible library is emerging. Edward’s manuscripts are lavishly decorated in the borders with his badge, his coat of arms and the arms of his family. They are a statement of who he is. It strikes me that this collection is a distinctive expression of a specific response to the Renaissance. Not so much in palaces and painted ceilings, but in books (please come and shoot me down). By drawing on his experience in exile in the Burgundian court, and by going back to burgundian Flanders for this work, Edward also shows himself to be a European king, and this reminds us that in the medieval period England was linked to the European mainland by possession of territory and family connections. After him, the Tudor kings Henry VII and Henry VIII preserved this collection and added to it. One of the most fascinating pieces is Henry VIII’s own Psalter, decorated with miniatures containing his portrait, and annotated by him in its margins.

Which brings me to another point that fascinated me – the extent to which many of the manuscripts in the collection were intensely personal possessions. Psalters and Books of Hours were by the side of their owners every day, and even though richly decorated with precious materials, they were not kept for show. It does not form part of this exhibition, but I remember being being deeply moved to see King Richard III’s prayer book, an intricately illuminated Book of Hours, that by tradition was found in his tent after the battle of Bosworth. So it travelled with him to his death (and is now in Lambeth Palace Library). Many of these books were commissioned by and belonged to the women of the royal family – but as we can see, not exclusively. So they may have been produced as signifiers of wealth, power and luxury, but they were for use not ornament. One of my favourite items in the collection fascinated me with its story, and told me things I did not know about English history. It is the Alphonso Psalter, started in 1284 and worked on until the early years of the 14th century. To start with, it is valuable because its decorative scheme was never fully completed, and so it is possible to trace how the work was marked out and the order in which it was done, and how it was later adapted for a different purpose. The work was commissioned for the son of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Alphonso. He was the second son, and briefly, after the death of his older brother Henry, heir presumptive to the throne (did you know about him? I didn’t either. In view of the debacle of Edward II, we can add him to Henry VII’s son Arthur and James I’s Henry as the kings who might have changed history.) When he was ten, he was betrothed to Margaret, the daughter of Count Florent V of Holland and Zeeland, and this psalter was commissioned to mark the marriage. Sadly, he died before the marriage could take place, and the work on the psalter was set aside. However – all was not lost! More than a decade later, a marriage was arranged between Alphonso’s sister Elizabeth and Margaret’s brother John – so even the heraldry was still correct. Work on the psalter resumed, and the progression in style can be seen in the new illumination. The book contains evidence of possession by Elizabeth, including addition of dates of death, including her own, in the calendar it contained. These historical notes to the exhibits make the most fascinating reading.

I could go on and on, but I had better stop. The earliest manuscripts date back to the reigns of the 8th century Kings of Wessex, to Athelstan and Cnut, and they are a breathtaking insight into Anglo-saxon culture. Works created for Athelstan have the elements of historiated initials, borders and miniatures that continued to develop and refine through out the medieval period until the printing press took over from the manuscript.

The Website for the exhibition contains some resources, of which the publicly available Facebook albums give the best flavour of the splendours it contained. For those with smartphones or tablets, there’s even an App – I’ve treated myself to that too, and it contains videos of commentary on chosen items, as well as a selection of images. I spoke of the sumptuous images going back into hiding after the exhibition – the British Library is showing the way to making these hidden beauties visible through its Turning The Pages digitisation project. Eventually, more of these treasures will be available to see – though nothing, absolutely nothing comes close to the impact they have when seen in reality.

Royal Manuscripte: The Genius of Illumination, by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle. London: The British Library, 2011. Paperback ed. 448pp
ISBN13: 9780712358156

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4 comments on “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius Of Illumination. Exhibition at the British Library 11 November 2011 – 13 March 2012

  1. Anne Brooke
    February 24, 2012

    Sounds utterly wonderful – many thanks for this, Hilary! :)

  2. kirstyjane
    February 24, 2012

    How tremendous. Thank you so much, Hilary, for this illuminating (snerk) response to what sounds like a terrific resource.

  3. Jackie
    February 25, 2012

    Wow, I’ve been waiting all week for this post and it did not disappoint! What a treat this exhibit must’ve been to see;fascinating and beautiful. The Alphonso Psalter sounds especially intriguing, with the history & ability to trace the evolving style. I certainly hope any artist in the area get a chance to see this exhibit.
    Thanks also for the links to glean more info on the subject.

  4. pam
    February 27, 2012

    Your review tempts me to get from Edinburgh to London to see the exhibition. I have been fascinated by Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry by the Limbourg Brothers (painted about 1412 – 16) which illustrates all the months of the year and gives a glimpse of the mediaeval way of life of both princes and peasants. These paintings are exquisite and the music of the period gives the same sense of exquisite detail too. At an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh of early paintings the audiotape was arranged so that it sometimes played music of the period as well as giving an account of the painting, Good to have both art forms together even if only for a short time.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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