Book-Art of Yore
By Faith Richards

For several weeks a large collection of illuminated manuscripts has been on display in the main level of Mudd. Created during the Renaissance in Europe, the religious manuscripts on exhibit are all pieces of art, as they were written by scribes and then illuminated, often in gold or silver leaf. Illumination of manuscripts was common practice in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, involving anything from simple decoration of certain letters in red or blue ink to complex illustrations in bright colors and gold or silver leaf.
Before the invention of the printing press, book-making was a skilled craft and art form. The church often coerced calligraphers and artists into creating copies of bibles, antiphonals or other church documents. This collection contains many beautiful examples of such works, including large pages from antiphonals that contain gorgeous pictures and bibles with detailed miniatures of people from the text.
The most intriguing piece in the collection is a Book of Hours created in Paris in 1440. Not only does it contain amazingly detailed and well-executed paintings of the stories from the Bible, it also has a mystery attached to it. Strangely, the book includes various vernacular texts alongside the standard religious writings contained in a Book of Hours. Scholars disagree as to why these texts were included. There is also a poetic love letter written in the back of the book in Italian that indicates that the book must have passed through the hands of several aristocratic families. The quality of the binding, artwork and calligraphy all indicate that this copy of the book would have been extremely expensive.
Not only are the illuminations in this collection well worth viewing for their detail and fine execution, but the texts themselves are works of art. Since each piece was handwritten the calligraphy used is unique to its scribe. Although pieces from the same country often display a similar type of calligraphy, the different styles of writing vary greatly between countries. This diversity suggests that the books were in constant use when first made. One Italian antiphonal was in use from 1375-1650 and contained the writing of nine different scribes in four different script styles. The illuminated calendar pages in the collection would also have been in daily use as people looked up religious holidays, Saints’ days and other special occasions.
Not only were Bibles, calendars and antiphonals illuminated, but the declarations made by important religious figures of the time were also turned into works of art. The exhibit contains a copy of the Deuctales of Pope Gregory IX. Deuctales were orders or decisions made by the pope that had the same force as laws and were often gathered together in books.
The collection of illuminated manuscripts is not only one of historical and religious import; it contains social and artistic significance as well. The illuminations in the books show how artists depicted people of their time and how people would have viewed religious ideas. The cost of illuminated manuscripts also indicates something about the importance of religion in the lives of the people of the Medieval and Renaissance periods.
The exhibit was created from the collections of illuminated manuscripts of John M. Lawrence from Wooster, Ohio, who has studied and collected such manuscripts for over 30 years, and the Oberlin College Special Collection.
The exhibit will be leaving Oberlin today, but some pieces will always be available for viewing in the Oberlin College Library Special Collections room.

November 8
November 15

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