Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

Paul Binski savours some magnificent illuminated books collected by English kings and queens - take a long, close look, he advises

November 10, 2011

Credit: Le Livre Et La Vraye Hystoire Du Bon Roy Alixandre (Detail)/C.1420-25

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination

British Library, London

From 11 November to 13 March 2012

The digital age seems to be witnessing a renewed public love of the luxury book as a desirable physical object. Somehow, as the stream of disembodied information displayed on flat plastic screens has swollen, the sheer aesthetic richness of the medieval book has gained correspondingly in importance. I've worked with a lot of medieval books of the sort on display in the wonderful exhibition Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, now on show at the British Library. For me, the experience of such books is always complex. Illuminated books can have tremendous charisma: they sparkle with gold and colour and are eloquent in their intelligent arrangement and design. But they also engage other senses. This pleasurable and fully aesthetic experience involves smell - the heady scent of the animal skin or vellum on which all the work is done, which wafts up immediately the book is opened; touch, too - the sensation of handling a mighty leather binding and gently touching the hair and flesh sides of the skins. I know of one expert on such books who can "source" the sheepskin on a book just by gently fondling it before pronouncing "French" or "Italian".

Using and viewing books of this sort has a particular calming effect, as if they altered one's mode of attention, even mood. The Middle Ages, the scholastic university-driven 13th century especially, invented much that we recognise in modern books - handy format, indexes, running heads and so on, which helped readers even then to find their way around just a little more quickly (look at the hierarchies of script and colour in the Oxford-made Books of Genesis and Exodus). In general, you have to connect with medieval painted books slowly and deliberately, patience and contemplative regard being all. A manuscript - to engage another sense-metaphor - is to be chewed over, savoured. In the exhibition is an entertaining digital display of monk Matthew Paris' itinerary from England to the Holy Land, arranged so that the traveller can follow the daily route (ie, "journey"), the little cities and churches passed on the way popping up to view. Matthew made what is in effect a "pop-up" book in his great world chronicle, not much later than 1250. Digital aids capture something of the dynamic experience of illuminated art.

That books are often magnificent objects is being demonstrated brilliantly at the British Library. Illuminated books were emphatically not a "minor art", a category invented after the Renaissance promotion of architecture, painting and sculpture. True, medieval theories of art were concerned above all with "big" art forms in the public domain. But medieval commentators could see wonder in the tiny. There is a vivid description by Giraldus Cambrensis at the end of the 12th century of the fractal-like, nano-art of an early Irish Gospel Book (the sort of aesthetic you can see in the 9th-century Canterbury Royal Bible, which opens the sequence of books on show). Giraldus says of the Irish book's designs: "If you look at them carelessly and casually and not too closely, you may judge them to be mere daubs rather than careful compositions. You will see nothing subtle where everything is subtle. But if you take the trouble to look very closely, and penetrate with your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together and well-knitted, so involved and bound together..." It would be an idea for visitors to this exhibition to bear such looking in mind; in taking your magnifying glass, leave behind modern assumptions about what was "great" in art, and above all give yourself time.

"Magnificence" is, first of all, a human attribute, as recognised in both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is as much about human interest as art collecting and possession. Here, English royal patrons and those close to them come under scrutiny, seen from a Europe-wide perspective in a series of scholarly essays in the exhibition catalogue. Single-collection exhibitions have the merit of coherence. In this, the focus is the British Library's "Old Royal Library" donated by George II; 154 books are on display, some drawn from other collections to enrich our understanding. What emerges? Above all, the extraordinary and growing importance of books made in continental Europe to English royal collectors: about half the books shown here are not British in origin, a trend that began in the Middle Ages. Richard II (d. 1399), who has a strong claim to be regarded as something very like a Renaissance prince-patron, gained the best Parisian books of the previous century, such as the Belleville Breviary. The yardsticks of excellence were Paris or Ghent, not Florence.

It's clear from the labels alone (and the manuscripts are beautifully displayed and lit) that some royal figures were outstanding in book collecting: Henry VIII and Edward IV figure large. The history of the exhibits also shows how fluid book ownership was, many of the items having been touched in passing by royalty rather than conceived by or for it. A major question still arises about the patterns not just of ownership, but of commissioning and use, by the English kings: into what intellectual culture exactly did these books fit; how did they change thinking at the time? The prettiest books are not always the most influential, and there has always remained an element of doubt about the intellectual clout, even interests and literacy, of the English kings. An entire century or two, beginning in the 12th and taking us through the reigns of the art-loving Henry III and his more businesslike and successful son Edward I, remain almost a dark age for studies of royal book ownership and reading - more is probably known, in fact, about what queens owned rather than kings. No one has yet seriously argued that the English monarchy produced a figure such as the sage-king Charles V of France (1364-80) or a collector such as his relative Jean, duc de Berry. Ever since the reign of Louis VIII and Blanche of Castile and the commissioning of the great Moralised Bibles in Paris in the early 13th century, the French monarchy was far more closely involved than the English in really ambitious book-making; it kept official history writing and illuminating on a tight leash (the Grandes Chroniques) in a way impossible in England, and the University of Paris was nearer at hand than the English universities, which kept public power at a distance. English kings were generally clients rather than creators, and a central aim was often to keep them in line morally by warning them just how awful kings could be, which explains such beautiful books as Hoccleve's Regement of Princes, intended to tame the young Henry V. It's easy to forget that when the sophisticated Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum was provided for Edward III in the late 1320s, he was a boy of 14 or so, rather than the mature Solomonic figure shown in the book's miniatures.

In thinking about use and function, we shouldn't forget beauty and the particular power of miniature art to absorb us - there are many wonders of miniaturisation here, creating immaculate little worlds. As French philosopher Gaston Bachelard said: "The details of a thing can be the sign of a new world which, like all worlds, contains the attributes of greatness. Miniature is one of the refuges of greatness."

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