About a week ago now, some friends and I took the walk to the British Library to take a gander at the illuminated manuscripts exhibit (check out the website here). I think the biggest surprise for us was how massive the exhibit was, how much explanatory text you spent your time reading, and how many hundreds of manuscripts populated it. I got so used to straining in the effort to look at the minutiae of these gorgeous pages that I – for the first time ever – was dying to run across a Frank Stella and step back for a moment. That said, it’s an extraordinary exhibition of some of the most lavish and politically-fraught artworks/books that you’ll ever find.
I’ve always had a particular passion for medieval manuscripts. What makes them so fascinating is their position within the private/public realms: at once a personal item, an object of quiet devotion, and a family heirloom, a manuscript was also a display of wealth, literacy, and power. They were often on display in wealthy homes, and sported as much customized art as could be afforded. And, in fact, the art in manuscripts often reflects this inside/outside positioning. The illuminations are often divinely detailed and bound to an ancient iconographic tradition. They often represent the text as directly as would be expected. However, the commissioners of the manuscripts often gifted the books for political reasons, and so illustrations were co-opted and selected carefully. In addition, the illuminator would occasionally add lewd and unseemly marginal illustrations that either undermined the text entirely, or perhaps added a deeper visual commentary than the traditional illumination allowed.
As exemplary as the texts in this exhibition were, they were 100% within the royal realm, where deviation from tradition and the kind of charm of a rough-and-tumble book of prayers are largely absent. Would this exhibit have benefited from some comparisons that allowed us to see the divide between royal manuscripts and common ones? The agenda of the exhibit is clear: to show the political use of these texts, and its evolution through the manuscripts of the English kings. But perhaps we are missing the way in which this particular collection stands out from the rest, and thus the iconographic privileges that royalty allowed themselves over and above the common man.
Definitely worth seeing, but make sure you don’t spend too much time on each manuscript… walk around and peep in on whatever catches your attention.
And now, a song for you: