Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Genius of Illumination Exhibition British Library - Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Update 4/4/2012

I've just finished reading talking book no TB005110 (RNIB Catalogue) titled year of Three Kings - 1483 by Giles St Aubyn.  While dealing extensively with Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III this book also covers  Henry VI and Henry VII .  It lasts about 8 hours and is well read and though a concentrated 'read', explains much about the interpretation of some of the characters in the 15th century.  St Aubyn refers to both the Cotton collection and the Harley collection of manuscripts in the British Library. 

I have bought the following books from the internet fairly cheaply.  They provide large illustrations and are useful as they are easier a sighted person to describe than the alternative - reading from a computer screen - :

Illuminated Manuscripts of Germany and Central Europ in the J Paul Getty Museum by Thomas Kren
The Illuminated Manuscript by Janet Backhouse
Illuminated Manuscripts by D.M.Gill
Masterpieces of the J.Paul Getty Museum: Illuminated Manuscripts

** end of update

Update 14/3/2012

Some themes have emerged in following up the exhibition with other illuminated manuscripts.  In this update philosophy is covered in terms of the Wheel of Fortune and some extracts from Boethius.  The quotes are from Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle.  The book / catalogue was published to accompany the British Library’s exhibition of the same title.

Wheel of Fortune

Page 248 – Wheel of Fortune (f 30v)

A common theme is the instruction for a king giving advice that Fortune can be good and bad.  “The emblem of a king poised at the apex of Fortune’s wheel was a traditional reminder of the vagaries of power.”(p249)


“In order to regain God’s favour while Latin learning was at a low ebb, Alfred spearheaded a drive to translate key texts, being personally involved in producing vernacular versions of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms.” (p114)

“The adaptation of the De re militari was work of a different translator, identified by Science (1927) with John Walton, who in 1410 translated into English the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius for Elizabeth Berkeley, Sir Thomas’s daughter.” (p364)

Des Cleres et nobles femmes

(Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris, in an anonymous French translation) Paris c1410

“The present manuscript belongs to a small group containing the oldest redaction of the French translation.  It was made in Paris c1410, and illustrated by an artist active there, now known as the Boethius Master because he illuminated a copy of Boethius dated 1414.  Since there was no established iconographic programme for Des cleres et nobles femmes, he was relatively free from constraints when he designed its 106 miniatures.  Intriguingly, some miniatures contain details that are not included in the accompanying text… It is likely that the Boethius Master … had access to a more accurate copy of the text… It is not necessary to insist on a single source; several could have been employed.” (p242)

Interesting parallels with:

Jean de Courcy, Le Chemin de vaillance (p224) – miniature on page 225

Des Cas des nobles hommes et femmes (222) (Giovanni Boccaccio, De casibus virorum illustrium, translated into French by Laurent de Premierfait)

see also blog post on the Wallace Collection and illuminated manuscripts on:

*** end of update

Exhibition links:

British Library: http://www.bl.uk//whatson/exhibitions/royalman/about/index.html

I had been wanting to visit this exhibition at the British Library for some time.  This blog had mentioned the exhibition and a TV series with Janina Ramirez.  My blog on the Wallace Collection of illuminated manuscripts covered a description which had been made in conjunction with a workshop.  I was hooked though this exhibition was a big request to make of some friends in explaining some of the many objects. 

(The album is divided into 7 sections.  The links to individual sections are given at the bottom of the post.)
My father had been a bookbinder and several years before he retired he took more of an interest in hand sewn bookbinding and gold lettering which he had learned as an apprentice and  had practised as a craftsman.  As befitting a “shoemaker’s bairn” many of my own books were unbound and I grew up in a house learning the practical way of not knowing a “book by its cover.”  My father bound several copies of my PhD thesis in full leather and with gold lettering. I remember his punching the letters on the leather and applying gold leaf.  When he retired he had been approached to hand bind some old books but he declined with a few exceptions.  The TV series was played to me on my computer and we managed to make a soundtrack of it.  As it was unlikely that I would be able to go in person to the British Library a friend ordered the catalogue for me.  My experience at the Wallace Collection had shown that for my type of blindness (loss of central vision) the printed copy may be a better bet, as many of the originals are displayed in lighting conditions which are not always ideal.  This was described in my post on the Wallace Collection.  I determined that a combination of the catalogue and some images from the British Library site might be a viable alternative considering my reduced mobility. 

After coming out of hospital and being more or less housebound a friend started reading me part of the catalogue of the illuminated manuscripts in the exhibition with some of the essays.  The friend showed interest and offered to take me to the British Library and on February 11th We took a cab to the side entrance of the complex at St Pancras and I hobbled in.   The audio guide was handed out and instructions given.  The guide has about 22 items described with further essays by Scott McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, the curators.  The exhibition has a timed entry so that there are only enough viewers to match the display cases with an apparent time allowed by an average visitor.  Just before entering the exhibition space downstairs there is a handling area of parchment, vellum, quills, velvet and leather in addition to the tools in a display panel.  At this point Jackie started the recorder and we were off on a 3 hour visit which passed by so quickly.  Jackie had a break during the audio entry descriptions and after about 7 items we both realised that no notes were made of these objects.

Janina Ramirez had made a very interesting series about the history of the manuscripts and the technologies employed in the production of vellum, gesso and pigments.  The library collection was founded by King Edward IV who collected manuscripts, books and early books of knowledge.  The frontispiece of these books is usually the most attractive feature though some other displays of the calligraphy can be noted.  Wars in France had resulted in much of the French Royal Collection being bundled and added to the Royal Collection.  The Battles of Crecy and Agincourt gained much booty and plunder.  The French collection was shipped to England.  In Scotland we were not taught much English history and my school in Edinburgh had a facsimile of the Declaration of Arbroath.  I have visited many world museums and realise the importance of manuscripts and the continued use of vellum in Britain.  The collection covers many topics and several items were a pleasant surprise:the collections of maps written by Matthew Paris in 1255. Paris was a monk at St Albans and produced many books. He drew a series of maps in 8 stages of a journey from London to Jerusalem.  In the exhibition these maps are posted much in the same way as railway timetables are mounted on a carousel in stations.  There is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth of England by George Gower and a tapestry as well as some prayer rolls.  I was interested in some of the Psalters and their illuminated paintings of scenes from the Biblical King David in the dress of the Middle Ages.  The family of De Bohun were influential in passing the dynasties and their manuscripts into Royal hands through Henry IV and Henry V.  Books were often venerated and used to legitimate the authority of a royal house at the time.  Following the Wars of the Roses, heraldic devices were used as shorthand confirming the lineage of the occupier of a throne.  In the French collection characters such as Robert of Anjou, the Capetian, Burgundian  and Valois dynasties,  Philip the Fair and Charles the Bold reminded me of a TV series which was shown in the mid 1970s. The series followed the historical novels of Maurice Druon (French Academy) entitled Les Rois Maudits or The Accursed Kings.  This was shown in French with sub titles and when I was in Paris in 1975 I bought the series of 6 books, in French.  I managed to get the English translations of the books in paperback and must find out if they were ever recorded.  ** Update 7/4/12 - Thanks to a friend, I have been able to order the DVDs with about 10 hours worth from the mini series which was made in 1972 - http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0173594/ .  I couldn't face listening to JAWS reading me the books in English or in French, so I'm going to have to imagine that I can understand what's going on as I listen to the soundtrack of the DVD.**

Editing of the recording was done at home and we managed to reduce the 3 hour visit down to 90 minutes of Audio CD. It takes up 2 CDs and Jackie and I have managed to match many of the commentaries with both the catalogue and the images which can be found on the British Library site. 

The catalogue is very well produced and will bring much enjoyment.  This exhibition had proved to be of interest and it shows that with a little imagination and a sharing of some knowledge and sight 2 people enjoyed an exhibition which may at first glance appeared to be inaccessible. 
You can listen to Jackie and me discussing the samples of parchment, vellum and quills at the start of the exhibition.  One of these sound files is on Audioboo at http://audioboo.fm/boos/674665-british-library-genius-of-illumination-part-1 .  I’m working on more and if you get yourself on Twitter it is possible to get these sound files as they are sent. It takes some time to match the files with the individual manuscript but this is something that has proved interesting in bringing some history to life.  The British Library is very useful as a start in getting more information.  Being interested in maps I was attracted to the map of Matthew Paris and a quick search in a search produced the link http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/illmanus/roymanucoll/n/011roy000014c07u00003v00.html

The catalogue makes a wonderful souvenir:

Royal Manuscripts The Genius of Illumination by Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle
(ISBN 978-0-7123-5815-6)

Other books which I found were

The High Middle Ages in Germany Edited by Rolf Toman (ISBN 3-8228-0297-2

Meieval Poetry Edited by John Cherry (ISBN 0-7141-5016-9)

Key words in a search could include:Heraldry, Ritual, Coronation, Philosophy, History, Bible Stories, Knowledge and Power.
Names of monarchs of England, France and nobility such as de Bohun, Arundel, Bedford

Battles such as Crecy and Agincourt

The British Library is raising a campaign for a Gospel of St Cuthbert. I have “cheekily” asked for an audio description to it.  http://yfrog.com/oeq1vvlj

1.                 Christian monarch 700-1400 http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150397063812139.404229.8579062138&type=3
2.                 The Christian Monarch 1400-1600 http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150397323207139.404287.8579062138&type=3
3.                 Edward IV – founder of the Royal library http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150398257227139.404471.8579062138&type=3
4.                 Instruction: How to be a king http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150398274327139.404476.8579062138&type=3
5.                 The World’s Knowledge http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150398286127139.404478.8579062138&type=3
7.                 The European Monarch http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150398311687139.404482.8579062138&type=3