This week: Golden manuscripts

Illuminated psalter from the late 12th century (Middle Byzantine era). Artwork completed with tempera, black ink, and gold. IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Throughout history, gold has captured the imagination – as a glittering symbol of money, sex, power, divine love, or whatever else our hearts desire.

From the Greek myth of the Golden Fleece to Titian’s Danae (in which Jupiter, the king of the gods, appears as a shower of gold), and from the golden objects found in Ancient Egyptian tombs to the quest at the heart of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the precious metal has been mined as subject matter for writers and artists across continents and down millennia.

As we are reminded this week on The Past, gold’s allure is such that it also became the natural choice over many centuries for the creators of important books and documents – as can perhaps most clearly be seen in the rise during the Middle Ages of the exquisite form of manuscript decoration known as ‘illumination’, in which gold leaf was used to ‘light up’ the pages.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, the curators of a new exhibition at the British Library trace the extraordinary history of this and other forms of ‘golden writing’, and explain how they brought together 50 spectacular golden manuscripts, showcasing 17 different languages from 20 countries around the world, and ranging in date from around the 5th century AD to the 1920s.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to discover more about the history of manuscripts and writing: we examined the spectacular medieval Hebrew manuscript known as the Rothschild Pentateuch; we looked at how astoundingly intricate works of English embroidery were used to communicate both sacred and secular messages; and we visited the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, to study its unique collection of illuminated manuscripts.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on famous books and manuscripts in history. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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