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.

Colour. The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts.

colour_catalogueIlluminated manuscripts are a beautiful enigma. Unlike the paintings on walls and the images on stained glass and embroidered garments, the spectacular images they contain remain hidden until the volume is taken down from the shelf and opened. For the same reason however, these images are potentially better preserved from the decay brought about by exposure to light, grime, damp and pests, and so they retain the colours and details and all the evidence of the creative processes that made them.

An exhibition of illuminated manuscripts is a rare treat, when hidden treasures are brought to light for a short time before returning to their hiding place. (Although we have been fortunate in the past few years, with an earlier even more spectacular exhibition at the British Library in 2012.) The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, celebrating its bicentenary, currently has a spectacular exhibition of manuscripts from its own extensive collection and others in the city: Colour. The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. If you are in range of Cambridge and have not yet seen it, I thoroughly recommend it – on until 2nd January, it is FREE, no booking needed.

The exhibition is carefully curated around themes of the creation as well as the inspiration for the decorative schemes of these manuscripts. There are many and various medieval manuscripts surviving, from the plain and workaday, to the stunningly gorgeous, richly decorated items on display here. These are luxury goods for wealthy individuals – mainly psalters and books of hours for private perusal and devotion. Some monastic and ecclesiastical communities had beautifully illuminated volumes for their liturgy as well. The images they contain are created in miniature, using some of the richest materials available as well as more mundane pigments. Being shut away between the covers, these images are as bright and fresh as when they were painted, and an unrivalled document of the original effects the artists sought.

Underpinning the exhibition is the University of Cambridge MINIARE project, exploring a range of non-invasive analytical techniques. These have enabled an explosion of knowledge of the craft and techniques of scribes and illuminators, and in part this exhibition is a celebration of this. A range of imaging, sampling and microscopy techniques in optical, infra-red and x-ray spectra have transformed the field, revealing not only the composition of the materials used but also under-drawing, and the ways in which pigments are applied and layered to create different effects.

The exhibition and its catalogue follow the illuminator’s art from preparation and palette to finished object and its afterlife. The first section contains the illuminators’ own self-portraits, looking for examples of how they worked. There is one of the clearest, most fascinating exhibits I have yet seen of the pigments used by them, and their organic or mineral sources. Mixing colours required great knowledge of the behaviour of materials, how to extract the desired colour from them. These techniques overlapped with the practical and proven techniques of Alchemy (no attempts to make gold from base metal, but a definite understanding of how to make different forms of lead serve as black and as white pigment, for instance). One of the most spectacular exhibits is a huge and arcane alchemical scroll. There are illuminators’ recipe books and sample books. Their range of knowledge of materials was astonishing.

Other sections of the exhibition seek to analyse their craft – how they derived their techniques of creating the illusion of three dimensions from Roman and Byzantine sources, modelling and shading, exploiting the effects of certain colour juxtapositions to create drapery and realistic flesh tones. But the main attraction of the exhibition is the sheer splendour of seeing case after case of exquisite images, intricate and intensely moving images of Christian devotion, interspersed with amazing fantasy in the margins. One of the stars of the show is the recently rediscovered Macclesfield Psalter, a tiny book filled with the weird imagination of a master illuminator – men fighting snails, an enormous fish terrorising a tiny man, an organ-playing rabbit. This came from an East Anglian school of illumination celebrated for its wholly original wit and imagination.

Finally, the fate of some manuscripts is explored. Some are vandalised through iconoclasm, others to recover precious materials (though it must have been rather a mug’s game to retrieve usable amounts of gold and silver). Many are cut up, with the precious images valued over the text they adorned. I used to feel almost physical pain at the thought of this, but now I find I am just grateful that anything survived, especially images of such rare quality, when so many manuscripts have been totally lost.

The accompanying catalogue is well worth reading. After all, these gorgeous objects will soon be back in their climate controlled stacks, and the memory of them deserves to linger. The exhibits are well reproduced, and the catalogue entries are fascinating. They are grouped in their sections with excellent essays describing, as advertised, the art and science behind them. I found the most fascinating essays were those around colour – the chemistry of the pigments and how they were discovered and exploited, the instinctive knowledge of optics and colour theory that these artists had, and the meaning that they gave to the colours used. If you cannot get to the exhibition in its final few weeks, buying the book is the next best thing.

It has been a delight to see two rare exhibitions of the product of medieval art and craft that is mostly preserved out of sight. This exhibition, along with Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery, has enabled me to compare and contrast artistry of almost unimaginable skill and subtlety, and appreciate the common culture and taste that inspired it. It is a reminder of the richness of the medieval mind and imagination, and of the sophistication and miraculous knowledge and technique of the artists that fed it.

COLOUR. The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 2 January 2017.

Stella Panayotova (ed.). Colour. The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2016. 420pp

ISBN 9781909400573

One comment on “Colour. The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts.

  1. noelleg44
    December 3, 2016

    Wonderful post. Think of all the years and years of training and work that went into these illustrations – how consumptive of a life this work would be. I need to take a look at that book – thanks for the reference.

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  • (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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