Books, Visuals and Varying Perspectives

This post stems from my recent visits to the exhibition “COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts”, hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge until January 02/01/2017. It is a brilliant display, gathering some of the most lavish and refined manuscripts of the university collections. Besides the astounding beauty of the featured objects, I believe that the whole path offers a wide insight into the way books used to be designed, produced and decorated, thus providing us, contemporary viewers, with the necessary notions to understand the profusion of colours, fonts and decorations hosted by a Medieval or Renaissance codex.

 Ms McClean 81

Flight into Egypt in a Book of Hours from Paris (1440-50)

Since the Middle Ages, the core structure of books did not change profoundly: even after the invention of printing in the Fifteenth Century, they were still made up of folios arranged in stacks, these eventually bounded together. However, our experience looking at a Renaissance book may be quite unsettling, if compared to a modern text book: an incredible variety of colours overwhelms our eyes, flowing from the vibrant leafs and condensing into capricious foliage, whimsical details, complex compositions of sacred history.

We are used to dividing strictly the sphere of text from that of visuals: to us, a book is supposed to communicate chiefly through its literary content and images, if present, are no more than illustrations. Similarly, there is no great variety of inks and colours: black is prevalent and italic and bold are seldom used to highlight words, headings or titles. Paragraphs may be evidenced by the layout of the page but, indeed, all the leafs appear uniformly similar one to the other. Our sensibility could thus lead us to state directly that a Medieval Psalter is far too decorated not to distract the reader.


The Anointing of David in the Macclesfield Psalter (1330-40)

However, we are defying a fundamental question: why were manuscripts decorated in this way? If we judge them as “distracting”, we are subtly assuming that they should serve the same purpose of our current books; this would be extremely partial. In fact, saying that the images we see have a merely decorative function is plainly wrong: initials, for example, were arranged in different sizes and complexity of design so as to highlight the relative importance of each passage. There were no fixed dimensions, so that a four-line initial could be more or less important according to the dimension of the manuscript’s pages; once established the relative proportions though, they eye can flow through the text highlighting immediately fundamental passages.

At the same time, initials of consistent dimensions could host miniatures, often representing scenes narrated in the correspondent paragraph. This is not always true, as miniatures were not necessarily illustrations: sometimes their content may appear unrelated but is actually connected to the main theme by a more subtle reference.

Colours were another important instrument in the hands of artists: they could set different levels of the text. For example, red was commonly used for headings, so that the reader could distinguish immediately the introduction to a chapter (often a summary of the latter) from its content. Moreover, colour in initials could establish a hierarchy: for instance, before the Thirteenth Century, golden leafs were applied carefully, as gold was not widely available in Europe; hence, gilding would be reserved to notable passages in the most lavish and expensive manuscripts. As gold spread, its use in manuscripts became more decorative.

This said, often the boundary between need and decoration is blurred: miniatures can be quite lavish, foliage may fulfil entire pages and the text be visually secondary. Following the Twelfth century, professional artists started replacing monks in the process of manuscript-making: more people could work at the same time on a single codex, writing and illuminating separate stacks; this led to a specialisation in the field. Furthermore, since artists and scribes had to be employed, the quality of the manuscript should justify the investment.


Resurrection cut from a Paduan Antiphoner (ca. 1460)

The complexity of manuscripts, as seen, defies direct answers concerning the relation between their materiality and the practical use. However, this is a question that emerges from a biased perspective: we, contemporary readers, question the format of older books because we take their use and function for granted. In other words, we start from the premise that the text should be the primary source of communication of a manuscript when, in fact, the visual aspect plays an important role as well. It is hard to believe, although we do not possess consistent direct sources on this topic, that Medieval/Renaissance men perceived the same polarisation that we may nowadays feel.

Featured image

Flight into Egypt

The Anointing of David


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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