Illuminating the Future: A Museum Guide

By Maryanne Grebenstein —

There aren’t many of them, but they do exist: museums and libraries that house a collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. I don’t understand, and it pains me to admit it, but my passion – calligraphy and the lettering arts – is not the passion of the masses. It is for this reason (one must assume) that these sources of art and history are not well publicized. Despite my opinion to the contrary, they are not always regarded as tourist attractions nor commonly considered part of the cultural wealth of their home city.

Nevertheless, the contents of these collections, one-of-a-kind books – often richly illustrated and always individually hand-lettered and bound – are more than artfully executed religious documents. They provide the viewer with a seldom-seen slice of real life during medieval and Renaissance times. Many record common activities such as planting, harvesting, hunting, and winemaking, not-so-common activities such as lavish celebrations of the nobles, and evidence of the cutting-edge technology of the era – the calendar. The collections include prayer books privately commissioned by the aristocracy; bibles, missals and graduals created in scriptoriums of monasteries; and even books on subjects such as science, medicine, and the occult.

Alas, most people are not fortunate enough to live in or near a city that houses a collection of manuscripts; however, one may travel to such cities occasionally. The list of museums that follows has been compiled as a guide for the native, pilgrim, tourist, or business traveler who might find or create the opportunity to explore these fascinating resources.

Please note that the museums listed often – but not always – have manuscripts on display. However, because of the frail, unprotected nature of the books, the displays must be constantly changed and rotated so that light and atmospheric conditions don’t damage the work. Therefore, it’s always prudent to contact the museum before setting out for a visit to avoid the disappointing experience of not being able to behold your vision of glory.

The college libraries on this list have a different mission than the museums, and the distinction is important. Although they do exhibit their manuscripts on occasion, they seldom have standing exhibitions containing manuscripts. Their collections are primarily for scholarly intent and are not always available to the general public. Some, more than others, are willing to issue study privileges. Many libraries make photographs and slides available, which provide a somewhat reasonable alternative to viewing the actual manuscripts.

Many of the museums and libraries have extensive, easy-to-navigate websites. In addition to providing the usual information regarding operating hours, driving directions, and admission fees, a number of them have digital photos of some of the more notable manuscript illuminations and miniature paintings. Some even offer large 8” x 10” study photos that can be purchased online.

Also, don’t forget the museum shops; they are a wonderful source of facsimiles, reproductions, and lots of other interesting “necessities” like CDs of Gregorian chants to help satisfy our inner monk.

CALIFORNIA: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Even a small percentage of the $700 million J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) bequeathed to the museum bearing his name would fund the purchase of a significant collection of illuminated manuscripts. Fortunately for us, the Board of Trustees of the museum targeted medieval art as one of the areas into which the museum would expand. Beginning in 1983 with the acquisition of the Ludwig Collection, made up of 144 illuminated manuscripts collected by Peter and Irene Ludwig of Aachen, Germany, the museum was well on its way to fulfilling the Board’s mission of expanding beyond Getty’s personal interests in antiquities, decorative arts, and paintings. In the years following, additional purchases have been acquired by the museum and its holdings now consist of manuscripts and leaves spanning a timeframe from the late 10th century through the mid-16th century.

One of the more unusual pieces held by the Getty is the 16th-century work Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta (Model Book of Calligraphy), which contains calligraphy by Georg Bocskay, imperial court secretary to the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I, and illuminations by Joris Hoefnagel, court artist for Emperor Rudolf II. Unlike most manuscripts, which were created for the purpose of recording information (scripture, music, prayers, etc.), this manuscript is a sampler of lettering and painting styles – almost a Renaissance self-promotion advertisement for these artists.

The J. Paul Getty Museum; 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1679; 310-440-7300; www.getty.edu.

calligraphy, manuscripts, Model Book of Calligraphy
Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta
Photo: Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta (Model Book of Calligraphy). From 1561 to 1562, Georg Bocskay, court secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I, created this Model Book of Calligraphy in Vienna to demonstrate his technical mastery of the immense range of writing styles known to him. About thirty years later, Emperor Rudolph II, Ferdinand’s grandson, commissioned Joris Hoefnagel to illuminate Bocskay’s model book. Hoefnagel added fruit, flowers, and insects to nearly every page, composing them so as to enhance the unity and balance of the page’s design. It represents one of the most unusual collaborations between scribe and painter in the history of manuscript illumination. Held by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

CONNECTICUT: Yale’s Beinecke Library, New Haven

According to archival records, the medieval manuscript collection at Yale was begun in 1714. The initial manuscript, a gift of Elihu Yale, was an illustrated copy of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (Mirror of Human Salvation), an anonymous work of popular theology from the late Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, however, that a commitment to collecting such manuscripts evolved.

Today, the Beinecke is home to roughly 500 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts consisting of monastic documents as well as secular manuscripts on subjects such as hunting, fishing, travel, and exploration.

Arthurian Romances manuscript
A page from the Arthurian Romances
Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; 121 Wall St. (street); P.O. Box 208330 (mail); New Haven, CT 06520-8330; 203-432-7325; www.library.yale.edu/beinecke.

Photo: A page from the Arthurian Romances, a medieval manuscript written in northern France at the end of the 13th century. The book shows scenes of animals, musicians, jesters, and archers, and includes 77 large miniature paintings, 51 smaller miniatures, and 36 illustrated initials. Held by the Beinecke Library.

ILLINOIS: The Newberry Library, Chicago

If the Newberry Library had a slogan, it might be the same as my favorite walking shoes, which seem to cry out, “we’re here for you!” A private research library, which is free and open to the public, the Newberry Library hosts over 100,000 visitors per year. Its manuscript collection ranges in date from the 9th century to present day. Its earlier manuscripts include alphabet books, Bibles, Books of Hours, breviaries, calendars, and more.

The contemporary pieces include work done by Eric Gill, Edward Johnston, Irene Wellington, and many others. The friendly staff members at the Newberry cheerfully welcome the serious scholar and the casually curious with the same warm enthusiasm. Located along the Gold Coast, just three blocks west of the John Hancock Building, the library is a gem that should not be missed.

The Newberry Library; 60 West Walton St., Chicago, IL 60610; 312-943-9090; www.newberry.org.

MARYLAND: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Roughly 600 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts are housed at The Walters Art Museum. Almost 300 are small, privately commissioned prayer books known as Books of Hours, which means this collection ranks as one of the largest Books of Hours collections, rivaled only by the likes of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Whereas some collectors sought books of historic importance, Henry Walters collected beautiful books.

Except during unusual circumstances (such as expansion/renovation), there is always an impressive assortment of manuscripts on exhibition. A renovation completed in 2001 resulted in a larger, more open area permitting the exhibition of a greater number of manuscripts than previously possible. In keeping with The Walters’ education mission, there’s a fantastic, child-friendly area just off the manuscript exhibition space. Here, an extensive display of tools, paints, vellum, and various art supplies from antiquity can be viewed. Large buttons waiting to be pushed by young fingers activate videos that explore details and idiosyncrasies of the manuscripts, which would probably go unnoticed without the expert, but down-to-earth explanations the museum provides. Be warned: the museum’s extraordinary collection, ranging from the late 13th century to the early 16th century, could transform the casual admirer into a serious bibliophile with just one visit.

The Walters Art Museum; 600 North Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201; 410-547-9000; www.thewalters.org.

MASSACHUSETTS:

Boston Public Library, Boston (Copley Square)

On this list of organizations that have holdings of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, the Boston Public Library holds the distinct honor of being the only one that is a public, not private, entity. Of course, Boston, with its rich cultural and historical heritage is no ordinary city, so one would expect its public library to be extraordinary – and it is.

The library is housed in a Renaissance Revival architectural masterpiece designed by McKim, Mead & White and contains murals painted by the famed John Singer Sargent, among others. It is located directly across the street from another architectural icon: H. H. Richardson’s Romanesque-style Trinity Church.

The library’s collection of well over 250 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts is comprised primarily of religious texts, but is complemented by a significant number of secular and scientific codices, including the works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, and later original illustrated treatises by Gregorio Dati, and Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca). Within the collection one will find manuscripts dating back as early as the 10th century, and strong concentrations of continental European manuscripts of the 14th and 15th centuries. The Department of

Rare Books and Manuscripts, like the BPL as a whole, is free and open to the public. Rotating exhibitions of manuscripts and rare books are always on display. Study privileges are available, where appropriate, by pre-registration and appointment.

Boston Public Library, Rare Books Department; 700 Boylston St., Boston, MA 02116; 617-536-5400; www.bpl.org.

Christine de Pisan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies
A page from Le trésor de la cité des dames
Photo: A page from Miroir d’une femme médiévale d’honneur: Le trésor de la cité des dames. (
A Medieval Woman’s Mirror of Honor: The Treasury of the City of Ladies, also known as The Book of the Three Virtues). An illuminated manuscript with text by author Christine de Pisan (1364-1431). In the miniature painting, the author is kept from rest by the Three Virtues. Held by the Boston Public Library.Burns Library at Boston College, Boston

Illuminated codices from as early as the 13th century, including an extremely rare Franciscan polyphony (a style of musical composition created for related voice parts), are housed at the Burns Library on the Boston College Campus.

Many other manuscripts of particular beauty are part of the collection as well, including several Dutch and French 15th-century manuscripts with beautiful miniatures and decorated borders. Worth noting are several important facsimiles, one of which is the Fine Arts reproduction of the Book of Kells. Visitors are always welcome at the Burns Library and there is an active exhibits program; however, the land-lettered manuscripts are not generally part of the exhibitions. The collection contains, among other very interesting early printed books, a printed Book of Hours circa 1520.

John J. Burns Library, Boston College; 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA 02467; 617-552-4861; http://libguides.bc.edu/Burns/overview.

Houghton Library at Harvard University, Cambridge

As one might expect from an institution whose name is synonymous with excellence, Harvard’s Houghton Library houses a collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts also accurately described as excellent.

Ranging in date from the 9th through the 15th centuries and containing approximately 850 manuscripts and hundreds of leaves and fragments, the collection provides an unusually grand study opportunity. However, there are no permanent exhibitions at the library, so these masterpieces can be viewed only after study privileges have been granted (please refer to the website for instructions). The more practical approach, at least for starters, might be the use of the readily available study photographs and slides.

Houghton Library, Harvard University; Harvard Yard, Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-495-2441; http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/houghton/.

NEW YORK: The Morgan Library, New York City

Like the city in which it is housed, The Morgan Library’s collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts is vast, extraordinarily rich in diversity, and nearly inexhaustible. It contains a staggering 1,100 manuscripts. Add to that the immense number of papyri, leaves, and incunabula held by The Morgan and one will find a veritable treasure of material to study and admire. French manuscripts dominate the collection, along with a healthy balance of Italian, English, German, Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish manuscripts. With holdings from the 9th century through the 16th century, this collection spans the entire spectrum of monastic and secular manuscripts.

The collection was begun by financier John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) and opened to the public by his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. in 1924. It is located in what was originally the private residence of the elder Morgan, an architectural gem designed by McKim, Mead & White on the corner of Madison Avenue and 36th Street. There is almost always a collection of early books on exhibition, usually containing or focusing on medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.

Master of the Codex of St. George
A page from the Master of the Codex of St. George
The Morgan Library & Museum; 225 Madison Ave. at 36th St., New York, NY 10016; 212-685-0008; www.themorgan.org.

Photo: A page from the Master of the Codex of St. George, also called the Stefaneschi Missal, written and illuminated in Florence, Italy or in Avignon, France, during the late 1320s. The miniature painting depicts a priest bowing before an altar. It has been suggested this manuscript was created for Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi. Held by The Morgan Library.

OHIO: The Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art is home to 30 manuscripts and 400 individual manuscript leaves. The Hours of Queen Isabella the Catholic, the Hours of Charles the Noble, and The Gotha Missal are part of the museum’s permanent collection and, by virtue of their high artistic quality, communicate the museum’s commitment to a serious collection of medieval art. These remarkable works from the 14th and 15th centuries are part of a constantly rotating but permanent display of manuscripts. Among the individual leaves, the visitor will encounter many fine samples from graduals (choral parts of the Mass), antiphonaries (the choral part of the divine office of the Mass), and even a municipal law book!

About 20 pieces from The Jeanne Miles Blackburn Collection, a magnificent assortment of manuscript leaves dating from 1220 to 1535, are also housed there. The timeframe represented in the Blackburn collection spans a broad period in which manuscript creation transitioned from monastic scriptoriums to lay workshops. As such it represents a visual journey from the workbooks of the church to elaborately decorated pieces commissioned by aristocracy. The museum’s website offers for sale study photos of many of the leaves and manuscripts.

The Cleveland Museum of Art; 11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44106; 216-707-2530; www.clevelandart.org.

Illuminated Manuscripts and Classroom Abroad

If you’d like to study manuscripts more deeply, join our October 2016 “Classroom Abroad” trip that begins in Boston, Massachusetts, USA and flies to Cambridge, UK where we’ll view exciting exhibits and manuscripts, including a day trip to London. Then we’ll head to the south of France for seven nights where we will live as artists in residence at a restored castle in Mandelieu, right on the shores of the Mediterranean. In the mornings, we’ll participate in a calligraphy and manuscript gilding workshop. In the afternoons, we’ll visit cities along the coast including Monaco and Monte Carlo. We keep this trip’s group small and cozy so if you’re interested, please register before April 30, 2016. Download detailed information here.

The content of this article originally appeared in the magazine, Bound & Lettered, and has been updated with current information.

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