Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination
Beautiful illuminated manuscripts often illustrate History Today, many of them belonging to the British Library. Their fabulous collection of Royal manuscripts is the subject of 'Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination', a new exhibition opening at the main exhibition space there in November.
These Royal manuscripts were mostly collected by English kings and queens between 9th and 16th centuries and together they tell us a pretty complete story of those times. The illuminations on their vellum pages are a good guide as to what was considered of value. They also reveal much about the identity of the monarch and what the world was like for them. In the early period they were produced by monks such as Matthew Paris, but later they were painted by artists of the greatest skill and sometimes specially commissioned to represent the monarch in a particular way. A century after the introduction of moveable type and woodcut illustrations, which made multiple copies possible, these lavish one-off handmade books were still painstakingly created, many of them as the personal property of the monarch. Psalters and prayer books were often in daily use and in some cases annotated - Henry VIII’s Latin Psalter contains illustrations of himself as King David and comments written in his own hand.
George II gave the collection to the British Museum in 1757, a few years after it opened. Some 1200 manuscripts with varying amounts of illumination were preserved there and later moved to the British Library at St Pancras. For the most part they are exquisitely bound volumes which have been closed tight against the harmful effects of any light. They have always been available for scholarly research, but rarely displayed, and as a result, the colours and gold leaf have retained an astonishing vibrancy.
Le Livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, Paris c.1420-25 (Royal Ms 20 B xx f.49v) tells of Alexander the Great’s heroic exploits and illustrates them with scenes of 15th century warfare, which clearly reveal more about Western Europe in that period than 4th century Macedonia. A powerful role model, Alexander is shown here slaying two different breeds of dragon.
Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination will be on show at the British Library from November 11th until March 13th, 2012.
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