FINE ARTS REVIEW Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination
BRITISH LIBRARY, UNTIL MARCH 13 Apart from the horrors of the Tower of London, the closest we can get in the capital to medieval England is Westminster Abbey: the coronation church and a Royal Peculiar, in which the Queen reigns supreme. Behind the high altar is the tomb of St Edward the Confessor, the founder, and surrounding it are the tombs of the medieval kings of England and their consorts. There, historically speaking, confined in one place is the heart of Catholic England. Only Durham Cathedral, which contains the bodies of St Cuthbert and St Bede the Venerable, comes close to it in terms of relics.
The ancient cathedrals and parish churches, plus some castles of which Windsor is pre-eminent, also link us with the medieval past and so do market towns and provincial capitals like Durham, Norwich and York. But the hidden treasures of medieval England are significantly amplified by the rarely seen and little-known wealth of manuscripts and illuminations that survived the destruction of the Reformation and the suppression of the monasteries. The Royal Library, presented to the British Museum soon after its foundation by King George II in 1757, has nearly 2,000 alone. From this large holding an exhibition of 154 richly decorated manuscripts owned by English monarchs has been mounted at the British Library, augmented by more drawn from other collections. It brings to a conclusion the feast of Catholic art and devotion that has been paramount in London exhibitions this year in the British Museum and National Gallery.
Quite apart from their sheer beauty, the manuscripts disclose the coronations, splendour, taste, chivalry, education, cosmopolitanism, genealogy, etiquette, worship and faith of the English kings from Anglo-Saxon times to the reign of King Henry VIII – he who died a Catholic king despite his fateful severance from the papacy. They take us into their lives and reigns, and provide an exhaustive chronology of a long period of history defined by calligraphic magnificence. They also banish the myth of the Dark Ages, because not only do we see the transmission of Classical learning but also of illumination, achieved by the brush and quill, of the highest accomplishment and brilliancy of colouring. As one contemporary inscription puts it: “The beauty of this book displays my genius.” These were the luxury books of the rich and powerful. Painted and inscribed on vellum, some were written to be read aloud. Books of hours, prayer books, paraphrases of the Bible and Patristic texts (works which focus on the Early Christian writers) fortified the kings’ spiritual lives. Others were written to educate young princes and teach them how to be kings. One contains motets composed for royal ears.
Not all are English in origin; half were illuminated on the Continent, notably in France and Flanders, a trend that began in the reign of King Richard II in the 14th century. Richard collected the best Parisian books of the preceding century. These were almost entirely northern European in origin with little from Italy. The final section is devoted to English kings as European monarchs and contains sumptuous manuscripts demonstrating the refined art and culture of the Burgundian and French courts. Indeed, many of the medieval kings were French, French was spoken at court and they ruled over vast tracts of France. The Great Seal of King Henry V proclaims: “Henry by the Grace of God, King of France and England.” “An illiterate king is like a crowned ass,” declared John of Salisbury in 1159. Not all English kings were as learned and cultured as their Continental counterparts. The French monarchy was far more closely engaged than the English in ambitious book-making. In comparison, English kings were clients rather than patrons. Two were remarkable book collectors: King Edward IV and King Henry VIII.
Edward’s collection is at the heart of the Royal Library. Gabriel Tezel wrote in 1466 that “he had the most splendid court ... in all Christendom”. Some were illuminated by the best painters of the time, working in Bruges. Edward’s huge and lavishly decorated works survive as the best evidence of the splendour of his court and make a magnificent prelude to this exhibition, while Henry’s books reflect the humanism of the Renaissance as much as music, doctrine and devotion. Beautifully displayed and lit, this is an exacting show that demands good eyesight, attention and patience; take a strong magnifying glass with you. The beginning becomes inconveniently crowded by rapt, motionless observers and I suggest that you either go early or walk to the end and work backwards.
The rooms are also dark, as befits the delicacy of the manuscripts, which have retained their pristine freshness because they have only intermittently been exposed to light.
But they are seen as they were when they left their miniaturists, and they take you into a remote world resplendent with gold and colour.
Anthony Symondson SJ