A colourful past: the art and science of illuminated manuscripts

One of the ways that the Fitzwilliam Museum is celebrating its 200th anniversary is by the staging of a splendid exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the end of July – a very fitting tribute to its founder, reports Theresa Thompson


When Richard 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion died on the 4 February 1816 he bequeathed his entire collection of art, his books, music and illuminated manuscripts, along with £100,000 for the founding of ‘a good substantial Museum’ to his alma mater, the University of Cambridge. So it was that the Fitzwilliam Museum came into being and Viscount Fitzwilliam’s treasured illuminated manuscripts became the basis of a collection that today is described by Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the museum, as ‘second to none’.

The finest of those manuscripts, and some later acquisitions, are the subject of COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, a major exhibition that plays a leading role in the year-long celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the museum.

1. Dormition of the Virgin by the Master of the Murano Gradual (active circa 1420-1440) Venice, circa 1420. One blue used to paint this was smalt.

Viscount Fitzwilliam was an exceptionally knowledgeable collector of illuminated manuscripts and the 130 that he bequeathed to the museum are outstanding examples of late medieval and Renaissance work, says Dr Panayotova, so they are the perfect subject on which to focus in this bicentenary year

‘But also, this is also about what we are doing with the manuscripts,’ she explains. ‘In the exhibition we are celebrating the research, the scholars who share their expertise across disciplines and continents, and the collaboration with the two major research projects that underpin the exhibition – the Cambridge Illuminations and MINIARE [Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise] projects. Their pioneering analyses have helped uncover the secrets of medieval and Renaissance illuminators.’

2. Book of Hours, Use of Paris, by the Dunois Master (active circa 1435-1466) Paris, circa 1440-1450.

The 150 manuscripts and fragments displayed in COLOUR date principally from the 10th to 16th centuries. Most are from the Fitzwilliam’s collection, including the founding bequest which, due to a particular clause, can only be shown in the museum. They are accompanied by a few older loans and some modern forgeries. But why call the exhibition COLOUR?

‘The reason for this is because we are focusing primarily on the painting materials used by the illuminators,’ explains Dr Panayotova. ‘Building up to this bicentenary show, we’ve been doing a lot of technical analyses. They underpin all our discussions of illuminators’ materials and techniques. They are non-invasive techniques – think physics, not chemistry.

‘But it’s a double take on the word “colour”, for we also focus on its symbolic meaning, and the value the original owners placed on their articles. They were very aware of how expensive some of the pigments were – some were more expensive than gold; ultramarine, for example, from lapis lazuli, came all the way from Afghanistan. The experience of having these items had great meaning for them.’

While many panel and wall paintings have been destroyed by war, social unrest, neglect, or the elements, illuminated manuscripts often remain in remarkably good condition, having been sheltered between the covers of treasured volumes safely stored in royal and religious libraries. These manuscripts are now viewed as the richest source for the study of colour in European culture between the 6th and 16th centuries.

3. Book of Hours, illuminated by Vante di Gabriello di Vante Attavanti (active circa 1480-1485), Florence, circa 1480–1490. These pages show the Annunciation (left) and the Nativity (right).

Every copy of a surviving manuscript or rare book has its story, or stories, to tell. Four years of cutting-edge scientific analysis leading up to the exhibition have uncovered new elements of the creative process, shedding light on the painters’ original ideas, on pigment choices and painting techniques, as well as the completed masterpieces.

‘The archaeology of the book is a huge and rapidly expanding field,’ says Dr Panayotova, a Classicist by training who, for 10 years, spent her summers taking part in all kinds of archaeological excavations, from Neolithic and Classical sites to medieval castles and villages. ‘It probably explains why I am so interested in the current research,’ she says. ‘What is the physical internal evidence preserved in these manuscripts? What can the discoveries tell you about the societies and people that produced the books or manuscripts?’

One discovery tells us that early illuminators experimented, trying out new techniques and materials, just as contemporary panel painters moved on. Another find was the detection of the first-ever example of smalt (a pigment made by grinding blue glass) in a Venetian manuscript. The uncovering of smalt was most unexpected, says the curator. It came about as they were doing a comprehensive analysis of all the pigments. An historiated initial, an enlarged letter framing a scene at the beginning of a paragraph or section, was a popular feature of medieval illumination. Technical analysis of an illuminated initial – a scene of the dying Virgin Mary – originally from an early 15th-century Gradual, a book containing the sung portions of the Mass (1), revealed that one of the blue pigments used was smalt, a substance not normally found in either manuscripts or panel paintings. The three blues that were staples throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance were ultramarine, azurite and indigo (woad). The fourth, less common, was smalt.

4. Missal of Cardinal Angelo Accialiuoli, Florence, circa 1404. This is one of the most luxurious and profusely illustrated of all Italian Missals.

‘The presence of smalt in this initial letter locates the artist firmly to Murano, an island in the Venetian lagoon that was one of the leading glassmaking centres in Europe,’ says Dr Panayotova. ‘But more importantly, it shows that the artist, known only by the soubriquet, “the Master of the Murano Gradual”, was experimenting – with smalt in this instance. Where usually, we think of these artists doing the same thing time and again,’ she muses. The finding, since corroborated by work on fragments in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery in Washington, shows that its use by the Murano Master (active circa 1420-1440) pre-dates by as much as half a century its documented use by Venetian easel painters, such as Giovanni Bellini.

The exhibition should debunk quite a few myths. One popular misconception is that all manuscripts were made by monks, and so contained religious texts. If it was the 8th century, this would have been true, but by the 11th century professional lay artists and scribes were travelling around the country producing both religious and secular texts, explains Dr Panayotova. Manuscript illumination had become an itinerant profession.

On the whole, medieval artists did not sign their work, but in one miniature from a Psalter, made circa 1230-1250, the craftsman William de Brailes, working in Oxford, included himself in an image of the Last Judgment. Not satisfied with a self-portrait, he gave himself a scroll inscribed: W de Braile’ me f[e]cit (William de Brailes made me).

The opening exhibit, a sumptuous Parisian volume made in 1414, is emblematic of the work made by the museum’s conservators ahead of the exhibition, as well as the scientific analysis that informs it. Commissioned by the Count of Savoy, the grand-nephew of Charles V of France, the volume is De proprietatibus rerum (On the Properties of Things) by the influential Bartholomew the Englishman (Bartholomeus Anglicus), composed around the year 1240. The vast tome, blending philosophy, religion and scientific information, was one of the most popular medieval encyclopaedias. In 1372, it was translated from Latin into French by Jean Corbechon at the command of the king, an act that doubtless raised his prestige but also signified his desire for his courtiers to become more educated. Charles V’s copy does not survive, but the text is preserved in lavishly illuminated volumes made for his relatives, such as the example in the exhibition.

5. Book of Hours, Use of Rome, the Three Living and the Three Dead, Western France, circa 1490-1510. The message here is stark: the prosperous men, enjoying an afternoon’s sport, cannot escape from Death. They will perish and decay like the skeletons separated from them by a narrow margin.

‘There are balances to be considered when displaying these works. Responsibilities to preserve and responsibilities to share,’ says Dr Panayotova. ‘Books are made to be used, to be handled – as long as that’s done responsibly.’ That it is possible to display this volume at all is the result of a year of challenging treatments, including complete rebinding, by the Fitzwilliam’s conservator Edward Cheese.

Technical analyses carried out on the manuscripts – such as near-infrared imaging, optical micro-scopy, spectroscopic analysis, and X-ray diffraction analysis – in addition to helping build up a picture of how illuminators worked, occasionally offer hints as to the artists’ origins. For instance, infra-red images of the Parisian volume unexpectedly revealed instructions for the illuminators hidden beneath the paint layers.

Other manuscripts have instructions written in the margins, where they are still visible; here, they were beneath the painted backgrounds of five pictures. In one image showing a scholar lecturing on trees and plants, the word himel (sky) instructs the illuminator to paint the background blue; in another, the word rot (red) appears in two red squares of a four-compartment miniature in a chapter on birds.

The curator was quick to point out that instructions like these were already known to exist.

The real excitement was that the imaging had uncovered instructions written in Middle Dutch or German, rather than French. This surprised everyone because the images were made by a leading exponent of illumination in 15th-century France, the Master of the Mazarine Hours, and for one of the period’s most distinguished French patrons. Yet, the finding confirms documented evidence that people from the Low Countries seem to dominate the illustrators working in Paris at that time.

6. Jean Corbechon, Livre des proprietés des choses, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Master of the Mazarine Hours (active circa 400-1415), Paris, 1414. The atmospheric landscape employs aerial perspective, a technique first found in Parisian miniatures circa 1400. The sky fades towards the horizon, and distant hills, trees and birds are painted in pearly grey tones.

Late medieval Books of Hours (2 and 3) often depict the popular cautionary tale of the Three Living and the Three Dead. The tale was used to introduce the Office of the Dead (a prayer cycle) and many medieval Christians believed that by reciting the text they could shorten the time the deceased would spend in Purgatory. ‘It was all about leading moral lives and the medieval desire to die “a good death”,’ explains Dr Panayotova.

Unusually, in a late 15th-century Book of Hours from Western France exhibited here, the three grinning skeletons and the living trio of hunters on horseback are characterised in images spread over facing pages – not, as is customary, in the same image on a single page (5). ‘This really reinforces the message – this will be you tomorrow!’ But the real horror of the macabre message hit home for Dr Panayotova when she began to close the book in her hands. The physical contact between the pages, between the images of life and death as the leaves came together suggests the artist was after maximum impact. The fact that he paints both living and dead flesh in a similar palette strengthens the visual connections.

Analyses of sketches lying beneath the paint surfaces, and of later additions and changes, sometimes can shed light on manuscripts and who owned them. A later owner of a 16th-century ABC, who was presumably offended by the nudity of Adam and Eve pictured in Eden (6), provided Adam with a short skirt and Eve with a veil. Yet the original owner, the French queen, Anne of Brittany, seemingly had no such reservations when she commissioned the Primer for her five-year-old daughter Claude.

Infrared imaging, which allows us to see beneath the modern paint layers, combined with mathematical modelling, which reconstructs the original image, has made it possible to ‘restore’ Adam and Eve to a state of innocence – without even touching the parchment.

7. The Macclesfield Psalter, The Anointing of David, East Anglia, probably Norwich, England, circa 1330-1340. Azurite, the blue pigment often used for panel painting, has been identified as the predominant blue used for the Psalter.

No exhibition celebrating these gloriously intricate, supremely colourful manuscripts would be complete without the Macclesfield Psalter (7). This tiny book of Psalms was exhibited in 2005 after its rediscovery at Shirburn Castle, Oxfordshire, the seat of the earls of Macclesfield, and its subsequent acquisition by the Fitzwilliam. Almost certainly made in Norwich, circa 1330-1340, it probably is most famous today for its earthy humour shown in images of a rabbit riding a hound, a man startled by giant flatfish and monkeys up to their tricks. But, decorated as it is with graceful, swaying figures, fashionably draped and coiffured, it exemplifies the courtly art that flourished in aristocratic circles on both sides of the Channel.

Similarly impressive is the Peterborough Psalter, circa 1220-1225, in which the Crucifixion is especially noteworthy. The innovative artist painted Christ’s slender torso curving elegantly to one side, breaking the symmetry of the composition – thus anticipating future developments in Gothic art, reasons the curator. Viscount Fitzwilliam acquired this manuscript as early as 1814 – well before the Gothic Revival of the mid-1850s when collectors turned their attention to Gothic art, and English illumination in particular. This stunning volume, with its delicate colours and incised gold patterning, is both an exquisite example of the work of one of the finest early English illuminators, and testament to the discerning eye of a confident collector, the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam, without whom we would not have the splendid museum named after him, or this sumptuous exhibition.

• COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts is on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk) from 30 July to 30 December 2016. For further information on The Cambridge Illuminations Project visit: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/research/cambridgeilluminations and on MINIARE (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) visit http://www.miniare.org/.