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Reviewed by:
  • Colour: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts ed. by S. Panayotova, D. Jackson, and P. Ricciardi
  • Nicholas Herman
Colour: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, 30 July 2016–2 January 2017. Curated by S. Panayotova, D. Jackson, and P. Ricciardi, eds. Colour: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2016. £30. ISBN: 978-190-94-0056-6.

Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making. Online resource.

The technical analysis of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance has lagged behind equivalent study of, for example, panel paintings and polychrome sculpture. The reasons for this are simple: on the one hand, advanced imaging and pigment identification have, since the 1950s, constituted a crucial first step in the conservation and restoration of large-scale works of art, and the resultant data has increased our knowledge of working procedure by leaps and bounds. On the other hand, manuscript books, whose painted pages so often appear pristinely preserved, have only recently been identified as occasionally requiring specialized conservation treatments that demand an understanding of their underlying material composition.

The Colour exhibition held this past autumn at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and the impressive accompanying catalog and online resource, provide a comprehensive survey of our current knowledge of manuscript illumination techniques, from both a scientific and a historical standpoint. More than that, these efforts also showcase several decades of exciting investigative work undertaken at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which benefits from what is in effect the largest and most important collection of illuminated manuscripts held by any museum. As such, it is fitting that the Fitzwilliam’s Keeper of Manuscripts and Rare Books, Stella Panayotova, and her colleagues Deirdre Jackson—an art historian—and Paola Ricciardi—a research [End Page 584] scientist—have chosen to scrutinize their collection to gain a better understanding of artistic facture, and, for the purposes of the exhibition, employ well-selected loans of manuscripts from other institutions to fill in the gaps in the story.

The exhibition builds on the knowledge of local collections accrued during the Cambridge Illuminations exhibition and conference of 2005, but with a more focused purview. Rather than illustrating a millennial institutional history and the development of book genres and styles of illumination, the Colour exhibition is arranged by theme, not by chronology or geography. The result is an engaging synthesis, though one that occasionally elides important changes in the illuminator’s practice that took place over time.

Upon entering the exhibition, after initially encountering the enchantingly kaleidoscopic frontispiece to the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Livre des propriétés de choses (MS 251, fol. 15r), the visitor is presented with an introductory section dedicated to the illuminators’ palette. While vitrines of sample pigments and tools have become a mainstay of even the most modest exhibitions dedicated to manuscript illumination, here the array of primary materials presented is apposite, as it serves as the basis for much that follows. Samples of dried plant cuttings and minerals bring to life the raw materials that sometimes transited across Europe and beyond to arrive on the illuminator’s workbench. The vertiginous commerce of primary materials across much of the known world, and their use by illuminators working in vastly different cultural contexts, is represented by single codices stemming from the Byzantine, Armenian, Persian, and Nepalese traditions.

The very image of the artist-illuminator is dealt with in a small but meaningful section, accompanied in the catalog with an essay by Richard Gameson, that presents three famous portraits of illuminators, each exemplifying an important theme: the duo of layman painter and pigment-grinding assistant depicted on either side of an initial S in the Dover Bible (Corpus Christi College, MS 4, fol. 242v), a self-portrait of William de Brailes in the guise of a tonsured soul being rescued at the Last Judgment (MS 330.iii), and the standalone likeness of the elderly, bespectacled Simon Bening from the Victoria and Albert Museum (P.159–1910).

Another evocative grouping illustrates a section dedicated to paint recipes and model books. Though visually modest in comparison to the fine [End Page 585] illuminated miniatures...


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