Today we visited the British Library exhibition of Illuminated Manuscripts. It is very well organised, starting with the preparation of the parchment and vellum and the grinding of malachite and lapis lazuli and other minerals to provide the colours. The careful application of gold leaf was also demonstrated on video. When you think that the work was carried out by either natural light or candlelight, it is amazing how painstaking it was. The folds of the gowns, the expressions of the people depicted. Breathtaking! Much of the collection belonged to Edward IV, who commissioned works from the masters in Bruges, where he spent time in his exile. One bible, originally the property of Cardinal Wolsey, had been used by him and Henry VIII in their attempt to bolster his petition for divorce. Unfortunately the pages on display did not show any of the notes in the margin.
The earliest books on display are from the 10th Century, showing the neat, squareish Anglo-saxon hand, which is actually easier to read than some of the later ones. The illumination in these examples is less ornate and colourful than in the medieval books. All of the books, mainly religious such as Books of Hours, had been specially commissioned by nobles or royals, who obviously didn’t mind a few oddities such as the army of the Midianites in full medieval armour. The beauty of these illuminations is absolutely stunning, done by artists who devoted their life, and probably their eyesight, to the work. Even the pattern work on the borders of the pages is entrancing.
If you are in London and have the time, it is an exhibition well worth visiting – at about half the price of the Leonardo at the National Gallery.