31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts · Art History · Medieval Art and Architecture

Text in Manuscripts – Day Four of Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about illustration and other elaborate decoration, so today, I want to focus on pages with a lot of text. After all, the content of a book comes before everything else. I also decided to look into the British Library’s amazing collection of manuscripts, since I’ve featured the Metropolitan Museum’s holdings for the past two days.

Historiated initial ‘P’ at the beginning of Proverbs, with Solomon writing and busts of virtues: wisdom, fortitutde, justice, and prudence. Arnstein Bible, German, 1170s. The British Library (BL. Harley MS. 2799, f.57v). Photo from The British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts.

This page from the Proverbs section of a German manuscript called the Arnstein Bible (BL. Harley MS 2799, f.57v) combines text and illustration in a really interesting way. I love the way that the writing and the image form complementary triangular shapes on the right-hand side of the page.

Unfinished initials ‘Q'(uoniam) and ‘F'(uit) sketched in pencil with foliate decoration and an animal’s head, at the beginning of Luke. The Netherlands, first half of the 11th century. The British Library, (BL. Stowe MS. 3, f.111v-112). Photo from The British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts.

The image above is from an unfinished gospel book from the Netherlands. The pages are so elegant, yet simple and clearly legible. The sketched-out initials call to mind stained glass windows, and I imagine that they would have been richly colored if completed. The generous margins and space between lines also add to the pages’ aesthetic appeal.

Panel inhabited by a wild duck at the end of Samuel, and a decorated initial-word panel at the beginning of 1 Kings. ‘Duke of Sussex’s Italian Bible’, probably Ferrara, 1448 or 1498. The British Library (BL. Add. MS. 15251, f.183). Photo from The British Library’s online catalogue of illuminated manuscripts.

The above page is from a fifteenth-century bible from Italy. The text is in Hebrew, and it is very beautiful. It’s amazing to think that copious amounts of such tiny, precise, artfully-laid-out writing were produced by hand and without magnification or even probably decent lighting.

To see more beautiful manuscripts, visit the British Library’s online “Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts”. Some of the standouts are also reproduced in de Hamel, Christopher. The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. I used de Hamel’s book to quickly find some of my favorite examples to include in this post.

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