by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fitzwilliam Museum Celebrates the Birth and Glory of Color Manuscripts

By Roderick Conway Morris
CAMBRIDGE 8 September 2016
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden,
from 'On the Properties of Things', Paris 1414



Illuminated manuscripts represent the largest repositories of art and color from the early middle ages to the early Renaissance that exist to the present day. Many of the images have been preserved in a dazzlingly pristine state thanks to the durability of the pigments employed, the skills of the artists and the fact that the pages of these books, some of which contain hundreds of illustrations, have rarely been exposed to light.

Over the past 200 years the Fitzwilliam Museum here has amassed probably the largest and finest collection of these manuscripts in the world. The museum is now celebrating its 200th anniversary with 'Color: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts.' This revealing exhibition, curated by Stella Panayotova with the assistance of Deirdre Jackson and Paola Ricciardi, contains more than 120 rarely exhibited pieces and continues until Dec. 30.

This is perhaps the first exhibition to document so clearly that, far from being a niche genre, illuminated books were for hundreds of years in the mainstream of the development of Western art. The Fitzwilliam is uniquely positioned to mount a show that uncovers their secrets and should surely foster a wider appreciation of their unique qualities.

The museum was founded in 1816 on the death of Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam, with a bequest of his collection of 10,000 books, 500 albums of prints and 130 illuminated manuscripts. In the 1895 museum catalog, the director at the time, Montague Rhodes James, a renowned scholar and writer of ghost stories, urged collectors to leave their manuscripts to the museum, where they 'would be choicely valued, religiously preserved and minutely investigated.'

The response was impressive. In 1904 the astronomer and inventor Frank McClean bequeathed 200 volumes and 130 illuminated fragments. In 1912 Charles Brinsley Marlay's legacy added more than 250 examples, further expanding the collection and supplementing the founder's mainly French, Italian, Flemish and Dutch material with English, German and Spanish pieces.

Subsequently, the longest serving director and expert on illuminated manuscripts, Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962), doubled the size of the museum building and trebled its holdings, securing many more illuminated masterpieces.

The early director's promise that the manuscripts would be 'minutely investigated' was limited at the time by the technical means available. But in recent years, technological advances have brought a host of noninvasive methods for scanning and analyzing manuscripts, which have revolutionized our understanding of the materials and techniques that went into their creation. These methods have been applied to scores of manuscripts in preparation for this exhibition.

At the heart of the whole idea of illumination (derived from the Latin 'illuminare,' to give light) is the use of gold, though the term was later extended to any manuscript embellished with color. There are two basic techniques of gilt enhancement: the application of gold leaf, and the use of powdered gold in a liquid medium (called 'shell gold,' from the containers in which it was stored). Substitutes for both included silver, tin and 'Mosaic gold,' made of tin sulphide (so called after Moses, regarded as the father of alchemy). The extensive use of gold leaf dates from the 12th century, and in some of the most gorgeous illustrations two or more techniques can be seen on the same page.

Among the most breathtakingly subtle uses of gold can be found in the highlights used, for example, to delineate the folds on the Virgin's mantle and the Apostles' robes in a Pentecost scene painted by Jean Bourdichon in a Book of Hours from the late 15th century; and in a late-15th-century Neapolitan crucifixion by Giovanni Todeschino, in which the mountainous landscape behind is delicately delineated in gold against a deep blue azurite background, creating an extraordinary sense of depth and three-dimensionality.

The opening section of the show, 'Color in Illuminated Manuscripts,' offers an at-a-glance overview of the range and variety of treasures on display.

A majestic eagle of St. John, from an early eighth-century gospel from Lindisfarne in Northumbria, is simply adorned with greens, yellows and reds. A late-10th-century Frankish liturgical book with 'Scenes From the Life of Christ' has powerfully geometric framing designs highlighted with blocks of gold and ultramarine blues. And a late-15th-century diary is illustrated with a virtually monochrome portrait of René of Anjou, fashionably dressed in black from head to toe with a wide-brimmed black hat and heavy gold chain, the use of color confined to a shield with his coat of arms supported by a heraldic beast.

An encyclopedic 'On the Properties of Things,' dating from 1414 and lavishly illustrated by the so-called Master of the Mazarine Hours, contains a final book mostly devoted to the phenomenon of color — testimony to the fact that color was regarded at the time as a science as much an art. The tome lies open at the frontispiece, showing God joining the hands of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by the teeming wonders of the Creation, realized with a sumptuous palette derived from multiple mineral and organic pigments.

The myth that illuminators, in comparison with panel and fresco painters, used a narrow range of pure pigments is laid to rest in the two following sections, 'The Illuminator's Palette' and 'The Trade in Colors.' As analysis has now shown, the illuminator exploited the gamut of available pigments, using subtle combinations and a variety of binding agents.

Glass cases contain scores of primary materials: plants yielding yellows, blues and greens; oak galls from which black ink was extracted; and metals and minerals that would be processed to make reds, browns, pinks, purples, blues, greens, whites and blacks. Some of these were traded over huge distances, from as far as southeast and central Asia.

Displayed, too, are the tools for applying them: ermine and squirrel hairs for brushes, animal teeth and hard stones for burnishing gold leaf.

And by no means were all illuminators monks, nuns and clerics, nor did they all work anonymously. An amusing and instructive page from the 'Dover Bible' of around 1150-1160 shows an illuminator and assistant at work on an outsize letter 'S' — the earliest known self-portrait of its kind — their style of dress confirming that they are both laymen.

Another detail, from a century later, depicts the monkish illuminator William de Brailes being rescued on the Day of Judgment by a sword-bearing angel, the artist's name recorded on a scroll unfolding from his right hand.

Multiple illuminators might work on a single volume over varying periods of time. One such example is a Book of Hours begun in 1376 in Paris for Philip the Bold of Burgundy, but completed for his grandson, Philip the Good, in 1451 in Brussels.

The Napoleonic period and the dissolution of religious institutions brought a vast number of illuminated manuscripts to the market. Viscount Fitzwilliam, a Francophile, collected his 130 manuscripts from 1789 to 1815 through purchases and gifts from French émigrés. Many books were broken up, and more than 250 examples reached the Fitzwilliam via the Marlay bequest in this way.

Ironically, however, the wider distribution of such images as independent 'pictures' increased the popularity and awareness of medieval art among contemporary artists and the wider public. The valuable materials contained in illuminated manuscripts could lay them open to later vandalism, such as the scraping off of gold leaf and ultramarine to obtain precious metals and minerals.

Other modifications took a more curious form. Analysis of 'The Primer of Claude of France,' dating from around 1505, a sophisticated ABC picture-book that Anne of Brittany used to educate her 5-year-old daughter, Claude, has revealed that a subsequent owner gave leafy loincloths and veils to the originally naked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

A striving among illuminators to create more realistic, three-dimensional effects in the depiction of drapery and an illusionistic sense of the body beneath is evident from the 12th century, as is vividly illustrated in the section 'Modeling in Manuscript Painting.' This and the remaining sections — 'Grisaille in Manuscript Painting,' 'Painting the Flesh in Manuscripts,' 'Color Theory, Optics and Manuscript Painting' and 'Color and Meaning' — examine particular areas in the development of the illuminators' art.

Among the most striking images here is a series of vignettes with captivating landscapes, which use minute color gradations to give the illusion of distance, with vistas stretching across green fields, rocky outcrops and winding rivers to hazy blue hills and peaks; and brilliantly rendered night scenes under starlit skies.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023