Illuminated manuscripts have been largely overlooked in the history of art. Playful, frequently contained in the margins of texts, illuminated manuscripts range from playful images of cats and monkeys to more traditional religious imagery.
I was fortunate enough to catch The Newberry Library's exhibit, Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books: French Renaissance Gems of the Newberry. Primarily focused on French manuscripts from the Renaissance era, the beautiful exhibit was contained within a small, quiet room not far from the information desk. As my husband and I were the only visitors at the time we attended, we were afforded the luxury of a slow and detailed viewing. The texts encompassed a broad range of sizes, from small pocketbooks to large tomes. The books were elegantly displayed, protected by glass and resting on a rich blue base that served to complement the fine aesthetics of the works themselves.
One of the first pieces I viewed was The Pocket Book of Hours and Breviary. This small book from 15th century France had belonged to Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy. I was surprised by both by the smallness of the book and the intricacy of the work. Artists creating these tiny pieces were often referred to as "miniaturists" due to their ability to craft finely detailed drawings within such a limited amount of space.
Equally inspiring was Jacques Le Grand's Le livre de bonnes moeurs. Estimated as being created some time prior to 1478 in Flanders, the piece tells the story, from God's point of view, of the fallen angels. This piece was much larger in size than the one I previously viewed. It depicted an austere God watching as descending angels became demonic in appearance. The rainbow above God at the top of the image contrasted sharply with the stark gloom of hell at the bottom of the page. The image evoked sentiments of awe and mystery that one might expect to see in a painting by such figures as Rubens or Hieronymus Bosch.
Most compelling was Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Upon looking at the image, my gaze was immediately drawn to the centerpiece: a black bird sharply contrasted by the bright blue background. It was only after observing the piece for a few moments that the surrounding frame of faces were observed. Intricate imagery of cherubs interspersed with a horned, yet God-like, old man. The more the image is studied, the more faces become apparent; even the columns had faces etched into them. With its subtle yet finely detailed background, the piece is a fine exemplar of work from this era.
One cannot fail to get a thorough appreciation for illuminated manuscripts at this well-designed and intimate exhibit. If you're already familiar with the art form, visiting the exhibit will be a distinct pleasure. If you are new to illuminated manuscripts, then a visit to the Newberry Library will give you a newfound understanding of the artistry that was so popular in Medieval and Renaissance texts.
The Newberry Library is at 60 W. Walton in Chicago's Gold Coast. "Illuminated Manuscripts and Printed Books: French Renaissance Gems of the Newberry" closes May 27th, 2011.