Thursday 5 January 2012

Red and blue heavens

Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, British Library, London

Another once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster exhibition, with timed ticket entry in hourly slots. Except that this one is not and, regrettably, will not be sold out, although it deserves to be. I arrived at 11.00am and was able to walk straight in. There were plenty of people in the exhibition, but with over 150 exhibits it is easy to spend as much time as you want on any individual item.

For those who already love medieval manuscripts the exhibition is unmissable. For those who don’t (yet), there is a wealth of treasures and surprises that constantly make you recalibrate your assumptions and understanding: Alexander the Great being lowered from a ship in a submarine so that he can observe the underwater life; a road map of the itinerary from London to the Holy Land, all marked in daily journeys that could easily be followed today; a detailed map of the coastline of Brazil possessed by Henry VIII, but overlooked by Elizabethan explorers who had to do the work all over again. As with all great exhibitions, you find yourself again and again reassessing what you thought you knew, and your appreciation of the world and of human achievements is enhanced. The fact that the exhibition is composed almost entirely of manuscripts is an advantage rather than a limitation, because it provides a way of focusing the critical eye.

The bare facts of the exhibition are impressive. Most of the manuscripts on display come from the Old Royal library, chiefly the responsibility of just four individuals: Edward IV, Henry VIII, Prince Henry Frederick (son of James I), and Charles II. That library contains nearly 2000 manuscripts, of which 111 have been selected for display here. Other manuscripts from the British Library and a few items from other collections bring the total up to 154. They range from the 6th to the 16th centuries, with the bulk being from the 14th century onwards. The scale of the exhibition is both daunting and exhilarating; after an hour and half I was barely into the second section (of six). Turning round, I could see case after case of treasures awaiting perusal. It was like hoping to see a tall ship one day, and then looking up to find the horizon filled with sails.

The difference between seeing a manuscript illustration in a book and seeing the real thing is almost absolute. Medieval manuscripts are immensely tactile: the smoothness of the parchment (usually calfskin) on which the hair follicles can sometimes be made out, the richness and vibrancy of the colours based on rare pigments such as lapis lazuli, and above all the astonishing glow of gold leaf that can never be reproduced in printing, all need to be sensed at first-hand. True, you cannot actually touch the manuscripts in their glass cases, but you can peer at them from only inches distant and marvel at the intricacy and finesse of the artist and scribes who created them. The varying size of the manuscripts is also only appreciated by seeing them. Where printed images, as in the catalogue, are out of context and the original size cannot be determined, the physical manuscripts vary from small hand-held objects of devotion to large and imposing volumes like the 1410 ‘Great Bible’ that measures more than 60x40cm.

What is remarkable is that while almost none of the items is familiar to non-specialists, with the possible exception of an image of the whitewashed Tower of London, almost every exhibit is a masterpiece in its own right. The historical sweep is also sufficient to explore changing artistic methods and tastes. In the earlier manuscripts the iconography and symbolism dominate and define the compositions; with the arrival of the Renaissance such clarity begins to become submerged under the desire to render realistic detail.

Inevitably there are a few stand-out items. The 1411 image of God the Creator, used as the cover image for the exhibition, shows God with a pair of dividers measuring out the globe as in Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’, but where Blake’s image is emotive the medieval Bible historiale emphasises the symbolic and spiritual aspects of the creator. God’s cloak is entirely formed from the red wings of seraphim, while the blue heaven behind is filled with cherubim. These form the red and blue heavens of which medieval theologians speak, while a third, white like snow, surrounds the green earth over which God stands. Augustinian theology and exegesis underpins and is expounded by the complex image and its accompanying text.

Even more memorable is Matthew Paris’s mid-13th century depiction of the pilgrim route from London to the Holy land. The four double-sided manuscript leaves have been separated and mounted in glass panels at eye height so that the visitor can study them at leisure. Each page features a leg of the journey, with stopping points a day’s travel apart. The sequence begins with depictions of London, Rochester, Canterbury, Dover, before moving across the Channel, down through France and Italy (including a wonderful wavy depiction of the Alps) to a final panel showing the principal sites of the Holy Land. Nearby a touch-screen display adds further interest by commenting on some of the places and items included in the itinerary. Given that Matthew Paris spent his whole adult life in the monastery of St Albans and never travelled the route himself, this remarkable manuscript is a testament to the way that accurate knowledge of the world was built up and shared by pilgrims and travellers to a much greater extent than we might expect.

In addition to all the illustrations, the texts of the manuscripts are very revealing. Almost none are in English, and while the biblical texts are mainly in Latin, the rest are in French (some of the Bibles are French translations too). It is a striking reminder that in the Middle Ages and beyond England was very much a European rather than an insular state, and its aristocracy more used to French than English; a 1540 manuscript refers to Henry VIII as ‘roy d’Angleterre et de France, seigneur d’Hyberne’, and under Henry VII’s coat of arms one manuscript bears the acclamation, ‘Vive le noble roy Henry’. It is a thought-provoking reminder of our history in these days of uncertainty over Britain’s place in Europe.

As if the manuscripts weren’t enough, the exhibition includes a few other carefully selected artifacts, including the skull of a medieval lion to make a point about its association with kingship, as well as effective touch-screen displays on particular topics and an audio guide which adds further commentary on a number of the individual manuscripts.

The accompanying exhibition catalogue is lavishly and lovingly produced, but in many ways frustrating. Although the text contains background essays and detailed further information on every item, the illustrations, however lavish, can only be pale reminders of the manuscripts themselves. They are also out of context, and some are enlargements or details which float on the page and are not anchored in the physical presence of the volumes to which they belong. To study the catalogue is to see a sequence of images; to view the exhibition is to look at books. There are also occasions where the catalogue and the exhibition display cards provide different information, which is curious. Visitors will want to buy the catalogue, but it will only whet the appetite to re-visit the exhibition itself.

I spent over three hours on this first view; the exhibition is so rich that two or three such visits would be needed to feel familiar with its contents and really appreciate the beauty and significance of what is on display. Three years in preparation, it is a shame that the exhibition is only available for four months. See it while it’s there.

Till 13 March 2012

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