2005-01-25 / Front Page

Medieval manuscripts ‘illuminate’ the past

Private collection includes richly illustrated books dating back to 1270
BY LINDA DeNICOLA Staff Writer

BY LINDA DeNICOLA
Staff Writer

JEFF GRANIT staff
Included in “Illumination” an exhibit at the Monmouth County Historical Association museum in Freehold, are pages from “The Book of Hours,” dating to 1450, and a French manuscript, dating to 1470.JEFF GRANIT staff Included in “Illumination” an exhibit at the Monmouth County Historical Association museum in Freehold, are pages from “The Book of Hours,” dating to 1450, and a French manuscript, dating to 1470. In a departure from its usual exhibits of county historical artifacts, the Monmouth County Historical Association is featuring an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the medieval period.

Thanks to Monmouth County Historian George Moss, 36 of the 40 manuscripts in his private collection are laid out in one room for the public to view.

Moss, who is on the board of the historical association, said they were looking for something special to exhibit during the Christmas holidays and this exhibit fit the bill because of its religious significance.

The manuscript pages on display were created by monks working in the scriptoria of the Catholic monasteries in countries such as France, Italy and England, as well as The Netherlands.

Moss, of Rumson, said he started collecting illuminated manuscript pages because he likes art from the 1400s but couldn’t afford it.

“I got my art in illuminated manuscripts, which were a lot less expensive,” he said.

The page manuscripts in the exhibit are well worth the trip to the museum in Freehold because they represent manuscript art from as early as the 13th century. The fact that they have lasted for well over 700 years is enough to inspire awe, but in addition, they are exquisitely written and artistically decorated. Most are written in Latin, but some of are written in medieval Italian and French.

Bernadette Rogoff, curator of the exhibit, is excited by the collection. She explained why the exhibition is called “Illumination.”

“Illumination refers to colorful decorations and 14-carat burnished gold highlights, which make the pages appear illuminated,” she said.

The art of manuscript illumination was developed in the 6th century, she added, reached its golden age during the 14th and 15th centuries and survived the introduction of the printing

press by about 100 years.

Before the introduction of the printing press in 1440, each book was handmade. A scribe copied the Latin text onto a page in calligraphic style, the page was decorated in jewel tones of ground lapis lazuli and other precious pigments, then highlighted in gold leaf and ornamental capital letters.

Most of the pages in this collection are decorated with gold leaf, but not all.

Rogoff pointed to a simply designed set of pages from Holland with beautifully rendered calligraphy and the repetition of red and blue as an example of manuscript pages with no gold overlay. The two facing pages are in Dutch and are a litany of saints’ names.

“This was made for personal use; that’s why it is so small in size,” she said. “In fact, all of these manuscript pages were made for personal use.”

The largest and the earliest manuscript page is from France, circa 1270. Titled “Treatise on Canonical Law,” the page contains a passage of text dealing with the offenses for which a priest may be excommunicated, including divination, magic and witchcraft.

Within a beautifully drawn letter “Q,” the medieval illustrator has drawn a monk attempting to divine the future by casting dice.

Moss said it was not unusual for humor to be interjected into the decorations.

The rich, deep blue of the background owes its intense colors to powdered lapis lazuli. The arm of the capital ends in the head of Leviathan, one of the demons of hell, usually depicted red-faced and with an exaggerated long chin.

“The French examples are just exquisite,” Rogoff said, adding that they are the absolute pinnacle of the art.

The colors, mostly primary, are still pure and clear. Medieval artists could not go into an artist supply store and purchase already mixed pigment; they had to make all of their own pigments, using ground minerals, earth, clay and plants. The process for creating colors was complicated. For example, in order to create a particular shade of red, strips of lead were hung over a weak solution of vinegar in a covered clay pot.

The pot was buried in fresh cow dung for three months, or until the surface of the lead turned white. The white particles were scraped off the lead, then roasted slowly in a pan over an open flame until they turned yellow and then bright red. The resulting pigment was mixed with a binding agent in order to hold the pigment together and enable it to stick to the page.

Rogoff explained why the manuscripts have lasted through time.

“Illuminated pages were protected in large books, so it’s the largest, single group of art from the Middle Ages. The strong bindings of medieval volumes protected the pages and their decorations within. More books remain from the Middle Ages than any other form of art produced during that time.”

Moss said he preserves his manuscript pages in albums.

Another example of an illuminated manuscript page is from England, circa 1400. It is a missal page on parchment and includes prayers for the dead. The embellishment in red ink around the first capital at the top of the page appears almost animal-like with twisting, curving tendrils.

Rogoff explained that illuminated manuscript pages would have been in several different kinds of devotional books, including psalm books and prayer books.

The process was apparent on one manuscript by the faint red lines that guided the calligrapher who left space for the illuminator to create the wonderful scroll work, floral and foliate motifs, border designs and miniature scenes.

She pointed out a passage done with red calligraphy and noted that the phrase “red letter day” comes from the medieval manuscript tradition of using red to denote a religious feast day in the liturgical calendar.

According to exhibition text, the Catholic Church encouraged this artistic expression. The ornamentation of these works glorified and celebrated the word of God, and the visual beauty of illuminated religious texts inspired the reader.

Most of the earlier manuscripts created before the printing press are on vellum, which was made from calfskin, Rogoff said, adding that later pages are parchment, made from sheepskin.

A parchmenter cleaned, scraped, cured, cut and trimmed the skins into groups. A medium-sized book with 160 pages required the skins from about 20 calves.

Moss, a collector of many things, said he was always interested in manuscripts of all kinds and assembled his collection from different sources.

“I used to subscribe to catalogs from autograph and bookstores in London. The things were awfully inexpensive,” he recalled. “I found one illuminated manuscript that really intrigued me and I bought it. It wasn’t that expensive at the time.”

He also lived in New York City for a time and would go poking around in bookstores.

“They would sell single pages. I kept picking up a page here and a page there,” he said.

But his collection actually goes back to his military days during World War II when he served in the Office of Strategic Service and was stationed in Florence, Italy.

“There was a bookstore there that sold me maps in return for cigarettes,” he said. “I didn’t smoke, so I would trade a couple of cigarettes for a map. Actually, I built up a nice map collection there. I did find two illuminated pages for a couple of cigarettes.”

The exhibit will run through Feb. 19 at the museum/library at 70 Court St. in Freehold, across from the Monmouth County Courthouse. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (732) 462-1466.

ing psalm books and prayer books.

The process was apparent on one manuscript by the faint red lines that guided the calligrapher who left space for the illuminator to create the wonderful scroll work, floral and foliate motifs, border designs and miniature scenes.

She pointed out a passage done with red calligraphy and noted that the phrase “red letter day” comes from the medieval manuscript tradition of using red to denote a religious feast day in the liturgical calendar.

According to exhibition text, the Catholic Church encouraged this artistic expression. The ornamentation of these works glorified and celebrated the word of God, and the visual beauty of illuminated religious texts inspired the reader.

Most of the earlier manuscripts created before the printing press are on vellum, which was made from calfskin, Rogoff said, adding that later pages are parchment, made from sheepskin.

A parchmenter cleaned, scraped, cured, cut and trimmed the skins into groups. A medium-sized book with 160 pages required the skins from about 20 calves.

Moss, a collector of many things, said he was always interested in manuscripts of all kinds and assembled his collection from different sources.

“I used to subscribe to catalogs from autograph and bookstores in London. The things were awfully inexpensive,” he recalled. “I found one illuminated manuscript that really intrigued me and I bought it. It wasn’t that expensive at the time.”

He also lived in New York City for a time and would go poking around in bookstores.

“They would sell single pages. I kept picking up a page here and a page there,” he said.

But his collection actually goes back to his military days during World War II when he served in the Office of Strategic Service and was stationed in Florence, Italy.

“There was a bookstore there that sold me maps in return for cigarettes,” he said. “I didn’t smoke, so I would trade a couple of cigarettes for a map. Actually, I built up a nice map collection there. I did find two illuminated pages for a couple of cigarettes.”

The exhibit will run through Feb. 19 at the museum/library at 70 Court St. in Freehold, across from the Monmouth County Courthouse. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (732) 462-1466.

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