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More than words: Medieval Storytelling

Western Manuscripts Curator, Anne Anderton, explores the artistry of medieval manuscripts.

As western manuscripts curator I have the great privilege of keeping some of the most marvellous medieval manuscripts here in The John Rylands Library. They are fascinating objects and tell us their stories and histories not just through the texts that they contain but through their very materiality. Some, it is true, are more beautiful, more appealing than others and our illustrated and illuminated manuscripts fall firmly into this category. They are truly works of art.

Image of the Assumption from Rylands Latin MS 39.

Covering a time period of almost 1,000 years the Rylands western medieval manuscripts display decorative and artistic features from most of the major periods that make up what we can very loosely call ‘medieval art’; a term which does not really capture the complexity of temporal, geographic, religious and commercial influences that are reflected on the pages of these wonders. Like the scripts used, the illustrations evidence regional styles and an image of a particular saint or landscape included in a codex may be a great clue to the provenance of a particular book. For example, this image of St Genevieve is one of the earliest perspective views of Paris, by the Dunois Master in Latin MS 164, a manuscript of French production.

St Genevieve, Rylands Latin MS 164.

Perhaps one of the most surprising elements of looking at the illustration in any medieval manuscript is the freshness of the glorious colours and lustrous gleaming gold that adorn them. A few years ago the Rylands held a superb exhibition on the ‘Alchemy of Colour’ exploring the physical ingredients that formulated the colours that still appear vibrant to us.

It explored a number of pigments commonly used in manuscript illustration, including orpiment, a vivid yellow mineral, which is highly toxic due to its key component, arsenic; vermilion red, which was made by vaporising sulphur and equally poisonous mercury; the use of gold, either rolled so fine that it could be layered gently on the pages or powdered and mixed to form shell gold paint; and the pigment prized even more than gold, lapis lazuli. Mined only in Afghanistan, this fantastically rare and expensive mineral travelled countless miles to the scriptoriums and workshops to be transformed into the deep and flawless blue we are familiar with.

Different grades of lapis lazuli produce different hues of blue, as can be seen below in these images, both from the same Persian manuscript. The pale blue is ultramarine ash, the final and poorest quality pigment released from lapis lazuli.

The constellations Andromeda & Pegasus, from Rylands Persian MS 3

Given the rarity, expense and sometimes perilous production of some of these pigments, the decoration within these works is as much an indicator of the significance placed on them as the fineness of the vellum selected to embody the manuscript. The ability to identify these ingredients offers us further clues to the production processes and sometimes authenticity of manuscripts. Much research is now focused in this area and our own Imaging and Conservation teams have worked on supporting research into pigment and ink analysis.  

In short, although they have a true undeniable beauty of their own, the decoration within these works is not really art for art’s sake, it is more layered communication heavy with meaning and symbolism. A visual language that both enhances and in some cases undercuts the text it shares space with. We have ‘lost’ some of this language and we cannot always see and understand it as fully as a medieval reader would, but it still remains accessible to us. This set of posts on medieval storytelling will explore some of the more recognisable artistic features that can help us to read these images more closely and understand their function.

Next – Medieval Storytelling: Ave Marina

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