An exhibit at the V&A Museum at the moment is both a feast for the eyes and a reminder of how people often chopped up medieval books and sold the beautiful pages as collectibles. The most desirable pages being those that contained illuminations, the richly decorated illustrations that make ancient documents so pleasing to the eye, even if a person cannot understand a word of what the text says.
The illuminations of the books, always painted by hand, even after the invention of the printing press, animate the book, dropping miniature stained glass windows into the pages.
Unlike church stained glass windows which were often designed to teach the Bible to illiterate people, illuminations in books were intended for scholars, so they were more decorative and less educational. It’s a curious twist when for many of us we are as illiterate in Latin and Old English as a medieval peasant would have been, so the illuminations are decorative but don’t tell us anything, unlike the medieval lord who would have understood the text.
Unfortunately, as printing became cheaper and books became more widespread, these older books lost their literary value and became appreciated for the illustrations, not the word, and were often cut out and the pages sold to collectors.
It became so common in the 18th and 19th centuries that most of the illuminations no longer appear in the books that housed them, but are stand-alone images.
And that brings us to the exhibition at the V&A, because all the barbarism of cutting up old books is in our modern way of thinking, it means it’s much easier to see the paintings that they once contained. Rather than showcases with a huge book neatly open and you have to look at a page from an awkward angle, the designs are on the walls, framed, and easy to see.
Yes, they’re without context, separate from all meaning, but the reason they’ve been collected – or saved if you prefer – is that they are so beautiful to look at.
Ranging from landscape scenes to decorative lettering, the exhibition is a feast for the eyes, with documents ranging from the 12th century to the present day.
One of the illuminations in the exhibition was performed by a monk from Florence, whose skills were so appreciated that after his death his right hand was kept in a sanctuary.
A commentary on the book of Job has been cut out to keep only the initial letter of each paragraph, like the H and B, depicted decorated with hunting dogs and foliage. Timely is the 1500s manuscript showing a large letter R decorated with nativity scenes.
After a room of old chopped documents, the exhibition turns to the revival of illuminations in boos.
In the 19th century, no doubt aided by the Gothic revival, people turned to illuminations as an educational tool to learn how to create similar images in modern publications, and giving them new uses probably helped save many documents because they were bought by museums and organizations. like the Arundel Company, specializing in decorative lettering.
Many decorative books were produced around the time, linked to the arts and crafts movement for more organic art production in the home.
And even today, it is amazing to receive a card with beautiful calligraphy instead of an average person’s doodle.
If you’ve ever seen a book of drawings collected from Antiques Roadshow rated by the page, as often happens, this is why the books are cut out. You can browse auction websites and see illustrations and isolated pages of old newspapers being sold as collectibles. The art of cutting and selling piecemeal has not died out.
In a way, it is tragic that the documents were cut up, but it is also very likely that many of them were not saved – a single book can be lost, but its contents are scattered in hundreds. of locations, and some of them will survive.
And now they’re on display for everyone to see.
The Fragmented Illuminations: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Cuttings exhibition is open until May 8, 2022 at the V&A Museum and is free to visit. It’s in rooms 88A-90, which is located on the 2nd floor on the east side of the museum, next to the Theater Gallery.
At the moment you need to book a free ticket to visit the museum, from here.