500-year-old illuminations


At the Isabella Stewart Gardner's recent collaborative show Beyond Words, I got to see many very old manuscripts. The theme uniting these books was their luxury. Instead of plain, unadorned, highly glossed and dense texts a scholar or student might use, I saw vibrant, shining and sophisticated volumes that showed a patron's taste and wealth.

The exhibition was excellent, though small, and I felt the opulence--and the intelligence--that marked the Renaissance.

But the key point for me, and what I'll try to show in the following (poor) photographs, is the vibrancy of the artwork. The painted and gilt illuminations popped of the pages, and were so stunning and bright it was hard to believe they are 500 years old. Again, please pardon the low-light photos and lack of proper citation.... I'm just trying to convey the shimmering nature of the gilt illumination that remains so stunning so long after its production.


There were massive, huge antiphonals... and tiny, delicate devotionals... and among them all, large and small, was the gold and painted illumination. 


There is nothing like gilt illumination, with real gold and done by real craftsmen!

The following video from the Getty Museum produced in the 1990s, shows how manuscripts were illuminated, and features the work of Irish binders/conservators Tony Cains (Trinity College Dublin, retired) and Bill Anthony (Cuneo Press and U of Iowa, deceased) and conservator Abigail Quandt (Walters Art Museum).