The genius of illumination

God bestrides the world. His halo punctures the lapis-blue heavens, where a myriad of angels whirl in the firmament. This exquisite medieval image would be a centrepiece of any great gallery. And yet, though part of a national collection, it rests in a book in a library, the British Library.

Delicate and valuable manuscripts can only be viewed for short periods in controlled situations. To make the manuscripts included in the exhibition accessible to a wide audience and to help overcome these restrictions, seventy-five manuscripts — half of those featured in the exhibition — have been made available online as part of a follow-on project also funded by the AHRC. ‘Our main objective is to make these books accessible digitally - from cover to cover, twenty-four hours a day,’ explains the project leader, Dr Kathleen Doyle. ‘Digitising manuscripts is a time consuming process. You don’t simply put these wonderful treasures on a scanner. Before a book is photographed, it is checked by a conservator. Then it is escorted to our photographic studio, and set up in a special cradle. The pages are turned one by one, from the corner, by hand. It can take a day, or longer, to photograph one volume, depending on its size and fragility. We reproduce the whole book, including the cover and any flyleaves. Accompanying the images, full catalogue information is made available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, with details of images, text, provenance, and the chain of ownership’. ‘Digital surrogates won’t ever replace the actual object, but they serve a crucial conservation function in preserving these manuscripts for future generations. They benefit scholars by enabling them to refine their research questions and allowing them to literally ‘zoom’ in on manuscripts to see them in more detail than ever possible before. So our goal ultimately is to make the entire collection of medieval manuscripts available online’.

The British Library’s illuminated manuscripts form an extraordinary art collection: images and text of the utmost delicacy and expressiveness created over a millennium and more. During the winter of 2011-12 the Library exhibited around one hundred and fifty works in Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Opened by HM The Queen, the exhibition attracted more than 70,000 visitors and considerable press attentition.The manuscripts in the exhibition - accompanied by a BBC TV series, the Private Lives of Medieval Kings - documented the challenges and tragedies of British kingship, and introduced the public to a little-known art form. Selected from the Library’s Royal collection of manuscripts, which was donated to the nation in 1757 by George II, the manuscripts were supplemented by others once associated with English monarchs.

‘These are objects that offer insights into the personal lives of kings and queens,’ explains Dr Scot McKendrick, the exhibition’s lead curator. ‘Take the Secretum Secretorum. In the middle ages it was believed this was Aristotle’s guide to leadership created for Alexander the Great. A manuscript version was presented to King Edward III at the beginning of his reign. His father had been deposed and brutally murdered, and young Edward was preparing to guide his people through difficult times - this is his ‘instruction book’.’

‘During the exhibition visitors saw images of kings whose names are familiar, but faces unknown,’ continues McKendrick. So here is Edgar, the first king of England, brought to life on a parchment painted in 966, a hundred years before the Norman Conquest. Here is a delicate line drawing made in 1031 of King Cnut, the monarch famous for defying the tides.

One of the goals of the exhibition was to highlight the role of royal women. ‘Several queen consorts brought manuscripts to England, and the illustrations show the importance of female attributes in the medieval court’. One of the Psalters on display belonged to Edward III’s Queen, Philippa of Hainault. It was through her prayer and devotion that she persuaded her husband to spare the lives of the Burghers of Calais.

One very touching manuscript features songs of lament made for Katherine of Aragon. In 1501 the Spanish princess married to Prince Arthur - Henry VIII’s older brother. Six months later Arthur died, and Katherine was a bereaved widow stranded in a foreign land.

The exhibition was the culmination of a three-year project funded by the AHRC in which McKendrick led a research team in collaboration with Professor John Lowden of the Courtauld Institute. Over 600 manuscripts in the Royal collection were surveyed over three years to choose the 150 that would be exhibited. The grant also helped the library re-catalogue the Royal Manuscripts so that they can be accessed by a wider audience. Another key output was the extensive academic catalogue produced to accompany the exhibition which included full-page colour images of each manuscript in the exhibition.

The AHRC’s grant was fundamental to the exhibition’s success, says McKendrick, enabling the Library to raise additional funds for mounting the exhibition, and new follow-on projects.

Investment in research can have a ‘multiplier effect’, attracting funding from other sources, as the Royal Illuminated Manuscripts project illustrates. Following the original AHRC grant, the American Trust for the British Library and the Krieble Delmas Foundation funded three six-month internships for American doctoral students to assist on the project. A gift from a private donor allowed the Library to commission new, special display cases to showcase the manuscripts to best advantage and to increase access for wheelchair users. Similarly, a grant from the Helen Hamlyn Trust funded the conservation of an important loan from The Burrell Collection so that it could be included in the exhibition. An unexpected output of the project was the re-use of some of the banners and objects in an upcoming exhibition by the Turner Award-winning artist Mark Leckey. For Scot McKendrick this can have a galvanizing effect on research and on the interpretative work undertaken by our cultural institutions: “The AHRC’s award to the British Library was the seed from which a research project on its Royal manuscripts burgeoned into a major exhibition, attracting significant additional funding to support our key aims of developing the next generation of researchers and engaging a wide public with the outcomes of new research”.

McKendrick continues: ‘Central to the British Library’s work is our stewardship of these great treasures. This means our work is to preserve but also to interpret and make them accessible to both researchers and the general public. The AHRC grant meant not only that we could prepare and deliver a major exhibition but also that nearly half of the manuscripts featured in the Royal Manuscripts exhibition can continue to be viewed on the Library’s website, without charge, by anyone who wants to look at them.’

Not only does this make rich and otherwise inaccessible treasures freely available to everyone, it also impacts directly on research, says Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, Dr Kathleen Doyle. ‘The free availability of these ‘virtual’ manuscripts can transform scholarship and create new research communities. One of the inherent restrictions of exhibiting manuscripts is that only one opening of a book can be displayed at any one time. With this new digital access, many thousands of pages which have never been available before can be now viewed at any time, allowing new research to be undertaken anywhere in the world.’

While it will be at least five years before these great but delicate medieval works can dazzle us again in a major exhibition, we have in the meantime this fund of digital treasures to explore and enjoy.

Click here to view the AHRC Image Gallery on the collection.

See the digitised manuscripts at: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts.

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