The Illuminated Manuscript: Medieval and Modern

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Creating French Culture:Treasures from the BibliotHeque nationale de France

Edited by Marie-Helene Tesniere and Prosser Gifford

Yale University Press 479 pp., $65 These two images, both from books, rather happily illustrate the scope of France's national library. Separated in time by five centuries, they are utterly contrasting. At the same time, they have surprising affinities. The earlier - a medieval illuminated manuscript painted in 1409 - is featured near the start of a large new tome celebrating the possessions of the Bibliotheque nationale de France. The later, an example of experimental 20th century modernism printed in 1913, is shown near the end of the book. Both were made in Paris, the home of the library, and the rich color might almost symbolize the opulence of the ever-increasing collection of books and manuscripts to be found there. Their lucid, expressive, almost jewel-fresh color also seems strikingly French, belonging to the same culture that gave birth to Impressionism, and even more significantly to that astonishing master of clear color, Henri Matisse. It is also a point worth making that the Boucicaut Master (who painted the 15th century miniature for the French king, Charles VI) cannot fail to have known some of the glories of stained glass that dazzled the eyes of worshippers in the great French Gothic cathedrals; the brilliance of hue in his paintings on vellum seems to vie on a comparatively tiny scale with such intense splendors. On the other hand, Sonia Delaunay, the artist who illustrated the long poem by Blaise Cendrars (upper right, this page) would also, after coming to Paris from the Ukraine in 1905, have seen the glass of Sainte-Chapelle or Chartres. And with her revolutionary determination to make color and its simultaneous contrasts, juxtapositions, and rhythms stand strongly on its own, she seems bound to have found the vivid translucent color of medieval glass stimulating. Much later in Delaunay's long career (in 1967-68) she was to paint, in gouache on a wood panel, a "project for stained glass" herself. However, at the time she illustrated "Prose of the Transsiberian and of the Little Jehanne de France," her interests, and those of her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, were not at all medieval. They were inspired by the modern city, by the prismatic colors of street lights, and by that emblem of Paris and feat of modern engineering, the Eiffel Tower. The large book from which these images are reproduced, "Creating French Culture: Treasures from the Bibliotheque nationale de France," was published to coincide with an exhibition at the Library of Congress toward the end of last year. The treasures have returned to Paris. This heavy volume - though its illustrations can hardly do justice to such a vast accumulation of items representing some 12 centuries - is what remains. Its pictures are supported by scholarly essays and notes: It is much more than a decorative book. The page by the Boucicaut Master is from the manuscript known as "Replies to Charles VI and Lamentations." Although Charles VI's father had been an avid collector and reader of books, and one of his uncles was Jean de Berry - who commissioned that consummate masterwork of medieval illumination, "Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" - Charles VI himself was no bibliophile. …