Illuminated Manuscripts

    Chronicling over 150 manuscripts owned by English Monarchs, dating between the 8th and 16th century, this exhibition at the British Library illuminates both the inclinations of these artefacts famous patrons and the social context in which they were created, as well as giving a rich insight into the monastic art form itself.

     

    Initial displays delineate the intensely intricate creative process of manuscript making, in which visitors are invited to ‘Please Touch’ vellum and parchment and to gaze at vibrant pigments and an array of quills, so evocative of candlelit cloisters. The main part of the exhibition is housed in a dark, high ceilinged space with information displayed on plush scroll like banners and the manuscripts themselves held in lit, low glass display cabinets. It has the feel of an archive and is the perfect environment to let the sense of history emanate and exude from these extraordinary objects. The atmosphere was almost one of scholarly intent, unlike the sterile white walled contemporary art galleries which often see aficionados rapt with intent expressions and everyone else awkwardly shuffling from artwork to artwork. Here, visitors young and old, informed and not, peer long and hard at each item -as is testified by the finger smeared glass- and the pace around the cabinets is (frustratingly) slow.

     

    Though the exhibition is high on information, putting the history lessons aside, there truly is something powerfully alluring about the manuscripts. Hand wrought in seriously bygone times they have a real ‘presence’ and the sheer size of the tomes they are found in, intimate weight and significance. The craftsmanship involved in the decorative illustrations and embellished letters made me yearn for times when a book was a work of art. Oh, to glean knowledge from Isodere of Seville’s ‘Etymologiae’ (one of the world’s first encyclopaedias c.560-636) as opposed to Wikipedia! Whilst two Oxbridge looking history geeks next to me exchanged quips over the portrayal of Antiochus Epiphanes’ army broaching the walls of Jerusalem, I marvelled at a family of hedgehogs hidden within the flora and fauna of the margins – the attention to detail is astonishing.

     

    With the future of print publishing under threat from the advent of eBooks, this exhibition endorsed my passion for the beauty of books as aesthetic objects. Down with the Kindle!

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