Hidden Treasures: Illuminated Manuscripts from Midwestern Collections

This exhibition highlights the rarely seen holdings of ornately decorated handmade books from sixteen university libraries, museums, and private collections in seven states. Approximately forty manuscripts and single leaves are featured, dating from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries and made in Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Illuminated manuscripts were produced in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and early modern period, and the exhibition includes examples of Bibles, liturgical manuscripts, and books of private devotion, as well as literary, historical, and legal works. This exhibition explores the different book types most widely produced in the Middle Ages, considers the audiences for which they were made and how they were used, and presents the aesthetic brilliance of the medieval illuminator’s craft. These illuminated manuscript examples, from some of the major artistic centers in Europe, can lead us to a greater understanding and appreciation of the past. The illuminated manuscript exemplifies the convergence of medieval bookmaking, written text, and art. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire was failing and Christianity was gaining a foothold over the classical world. Roman law was being collected and codified, and the codex, the rectangular book form with pages invented in the first century, was replacing earlier forms of writing such as inscriptions in clay and stone, wax tablets, and the papyrus scroll. Handmade books, written in ink on animal skin, were adorned with painted decorations in brilliant pigments and gold leaf, and the leaves were bound in between leather-covered wooden boards centuries before the mid-fifteenth century invention of the printing press. Even after the broad dissemination of the printed book began, production of lavishly illuminated manuscripts continued into the sixteenth century as a testament to their aesthetic attraction, material durability, and signification of status. This specialized book art is still practiced today. Artists used various design strategies to present the images that accompany the texts in these books. Miniature paintings—called “illuminations” for the frequent use of gold that literally illuminates the page in the presence of candlelight—stimulated the eyes, aided memory, and fueled the medieval imagination. They are still breathtakingly vibrant since they have been preserved for centuries between book covers and, in their more recent history, have been cherished as artistic treasures. Bibles December 18, 2010 — February 27, 2011 Bibles and biblical compendia were among the most important and widely produced books in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The scripture contained in the Bible was held as the divinely transmitted record of sacred history and thus considered to be humankind’s ultimate spiritual guide. The English word bible comes from the Latin biblia or biblia sacra, “holy book,” which ultimately derives from the Greek τὰ βιβλία, ta biblia, meaning “the books.” From the beginning Christianity has relied upon the written word as the authority for religious teachings and worship. Among the earliest surviving texts are biblical manuscripts that were carried by monastic missionaries as far as the British Isles and Ireland where they wielded the power of literacy to convert local inhabitants and dominate existing oral traditions.