Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is the British Library’s first major exhibition to showcase its Royal Collection: a vast, dazzling body of illuminated manuscripts acquired by kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th centuries.
Prepare to be amazed, says Jill Glenn, who went to the launch.
The preparation and presentation of this exhibition has been, you can tell, a mammoth enterprise – and the viewing of it is a similarly huge undertaking, an intellectual adventure that takes you to the heart of history. It is not, though, a show for the faint-hearted. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination is essentially a solitary, cerebral experience. You read the captions, you study the pages. It’s demanding, but if you’re prepared to put in the effort, it’s astonishingly rewarding.
Stepping into the versatile basement PACCAR Gallery is like stepping into an illustrated manuscript itself; each of the six sections has been colour-coded, with walls and hangings in royal blue and rich red and imperial purple. The almost reverent atmosphere is enhanced by the protective gloom that emphasises the preciousness of the volumes on show.
Most are open on lavish illustrations; they’re the sort of pictures that you see on calendars or Christmas cards, or in coffee table history books, but these are the real deal. Many would have been handled by, or read to, royalty, and been key to the court and personal life of their owners.
They remain, these volumes, mostly in surprisingly good condition, with their vivid colours as strong and vibrant today as when they were first painted, and all their gold detail still gleaming. Stand at the right angle and when the light catches the gilding and bursts into life, it is as breathtaking as it must have been six or seven hundred years ago.
There is everything that a king (or a queen) could wish for or need: stories to entertain and manuals to instruct. There are books of moral and spiritual guidance; memorable deeds and sayings; psalters and bibles; treatises on chivalric virtues; genealogies and histories – of the Jews, of Rome, of contemporary England and of France – and cautionary accounts of the lives of famous men.
One of the interpretative modern wall-hangings has a quotation from the Household Ordinances of Edward Prince of Wales, as laid down by his father, King Edward IV, in 1473: ‘and that then bee read before him such noble Stories, as behoveth a Prince to understand and knowe’… and in the display cases nearby are the very books that would have been read aloud to the little prince (who was later to perish as one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’) while he ate his midday meal. It’s sentimental, perhaps, but it brings the figures of history very sharply to life.
It is with Edward IV, in fact, that this exhibition begins, for it was he who founded the ‘Old Royal Library’, to which all these volumes belong. By the time it was donated to the nation by George II in 1757, it totalled nearly two thousand volumes. At its heart are the fifty illuminated manuscripts acquired by Edward IV in the second half of the fifteenth century. Huge in size, created by leading craftsmen of the time, often adorned with the king’s heraldic devices to show that they had been made especially for him, they were intended to be admired and to be read aloud for the benefit of all at court.
The Edward IV section of the show is dominated by an enlargement of a picture of Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais at work in his study; this is the image that the curators, Dr Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, believe sets the tone for all that is to come. Le Miroir historial shows the author surrounded by several impressive volumes of his own, reflecting the wealth of knowledge and historical canvas within its pages.
It demonstrates, too, that not only were these medieval writers and readers knowledgeable, but that they knew that they were knowledgeable. These clever references may appear self-congratulatory, perhaps, but there is a real sense here of embarking on a voyage into the intellect, a recognition that this was a society consciously engaging with knowledge, with what it was, and what it could do and how it should be used.
Not only stunning works of art in their own right, therefore, these volumes also, both individually and collectively, reveal the preoccupations and preferences of the medieval and early modern royals. In some instances, explains Dr McKendrick, these are ‘the best – even the only – way to learn about English kings and their families’. Illuminating in more ways than one.
Section two – the Christian Monarch – features several small prayerbooks, designed to be hand-held and used for personal devotion. It includes the Hours of Elizabeth the Queen (daughter of Edward IV and wife of Henry VII), considered ‘the most lavish Book of Hours produced in fifteenth century England’, plus one of the earliest manuscripts in the collection, a set of the four Gospels, probably used by King Athelstan (924/5-939) on a daily basis. I thought this section of the exhibition very moving, turning random names from history into living men and women by way of their piety and intellect, making them feel surprisingly close and modern.
The remaining sections – Royal Identities, How To Be A King, The World’s Knowledge and The European Monarch – all segue smoothly into each other, building up a rounded profile of the collection as a whole, and constantly challenging preconceptions about royal tastes and interests. This is an extraordinarily comprehensive hoard that attests to a wide range of scholarly preoccupations. The World’s Knowledge, in particular, dovetails with our modern expectations of a library: works of reference and learning, including geography and astrology, and even books on personal hygiene and health.
The detail and decoration constantly take your breath away. It seems very fitting, too, that an exhibition extolling the beauty (literally) of knowledge and the dissemination of information, should continue the tradition itself in so many different ways. There is a catalogue, of course, featuring over 150 examples with essays and images, plus a more manageable paperback with around 40 examples, each explored and explained, and there is even an App for iPad, iPhone and Android, with images and text, plus short videos presented by manuscript experts. It’s a real delight, and it overcomes one of the downsides of an exhibition of this scale, that frisson of nervousness as you leave – have I seen everything, have I absorbed everything, will I remember it all? For £2.49 for phone, or £3.99 for iPad, though, you can carry selections from nearly 60 illuminated manuscripts around in your pocket. What would Edward IV have made of that?
Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination continues
at the British Library until 13 March 2012.
Admission £9 (inc audio guide); concessions available
including free admission for under 18s and schools.
See www.bl.uk for more information.