How to contain a thousand years of art in one hour?
* Video - a unique LizPresents video (ca 18 mins + voice over) with a broad selection of manuscript illuminations and styles with explanations of context and content.
* Slideshow - for lecture 1, an overview of the manuscript/codex era, their creation, and curious facts; for lecture 2, additional information on manuscripts. For both lectures, an in-depth study of one manuscript - its contents, its context (who commissioned, created and why) and its history as a physical entity.
The Medieval Manuscript is in a format known as a codex, put simply a fully handmade, hand written and illustrated book with covers and pages to turn whose origins date back to 2-400 AD. They were replaced by printed books beginning in 1450 and their wild originality faded away over the next 150 years, although they continued, and continue, to be made as works of art.
The codex or book format's success was due to (obviously) its convenience, portability and easily displayed pages and it became the norm when large volumes of text needed to be recorded. Into the codex was written - copied from scrolls - the knowledge and beliefs of the world. It was they who introduced the lettered page and ultimately literacy into the dark corners of the western world. [Scrolls of course continued to be the major format for bureaucratic and legal records.] One wonders: if the codex had not been so portable, so easy to display, so magically illuminated and enticing, then how much longer would the spread of literacy have taken?
Whether religious in content or not, the illuminations range from beautiful (as in the image at the top of this post) to extraordinary rampant displays of dragons, people, animals and strange beings in a topsy turvy world that threatens man with the devil, apocalypse and disorder. It seems like a very upsetting world!
Not to worry! Everywhere there are also images of the routines of life, work and entertainment; a reminder that people lived, loved, played music, danced and enjoyed a good joke - just like us.
High quality digitised copies on line are now available from nearly all major libraries and museums. An extraordinary gift that has made these presentations possible.
In closing: the illuminations are often hard to comprehend, so its a relief to know even scholars find them puzzling because, of course, we cannot conceive of the medieval mind and although the rationale for some is fairly clear - and often the images are sharp commentaries on the absurdity or immorality of those in high stations - many of the drolleries seem just that: droll as in to amuse. Conjecture or guesswork about their meaning is of course what makes them so fascinating, and fun. However there is also a reminder that the truly incomprehensible illuminations in religious folios were often MEANT to be so, reflecting as they do the mystery of God, in fact encouraging reflection...and that is true of texts from all beliefs.