The history of the book forms one of the chief categories of the material culture of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Its history spans at least a millennium, and for many of us today these handwritten, richly embellished works of art represent the quintessential form of medieval artistic expression. Their appeal is both intimate and timeless. The illuminated manuscript is undoubtedly the most tactile and recognizable of all such collectibles from this era.
The history of manuscript illumination corresponds almost exactly with the epoch we know as the Middle Ages, a vast period of about a thousand years. An illuminated manuscript is a book that was written and decorated by hand sometime between the fall of Rome, in the late 5th century AD, and the perfection of printing technology towards the end of the 15th century. Its texts were written on vellum (animal skin), not paper. These were enlivened by the application of colorful inks, pigments, and gold. In antiquity, literature was thought of as something spoken or heard. The Middle Ages broke with this tradition by considering a literary text as something to be revealed visually to be understood through the written word. Often elaborately decorated in a multitude of styles and formats, illuminated manuscripts flourished in ecclesiastical, monastic, devotional, courtly, legal, and academic contexts throughout the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. This exhibition presents a selection of liturgical, academic, and biblical leaves from the museum's permanent collection.
The exhibition complements Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics, and Devotion in Medieval Europe, on view October 17, 2010–January 17, 2011, in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall.