Illuminating Ancient Art; Richard Edmonds Marvels at the Beauty of Medieval Painted Manuscripts

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The selection of the illuminated manuscripts on sale at the NEC April Antiques Fair was something I had not expected to find.

Painted pages are rare enough at the best of times and many of the tiny NEC items were taken from 16th and 17th century pages of the Koran. This means of course they were in a flowing and very elegant Arabic script valuable for their calligraphy (and ext remely affordable at prices from pounds 14 upwards).

But two aspects of European illuminated books have come my way this week. On Tuesday, Sotheby's were busy selling The Burdett Psalter, a previously unrecorded masterpiece of 13th century book illustration which was sold to a private collector for pounds 2,751,500.

But Prestel, that most go-ahead of publishers have sent a copy of their recently published book The Painted Page, Italian Renaissance Book Illumination, which not only provides background for this column but ranges from 1450-1550 and contains excellent e ssays from various experts to provide insight into this fascinating area.

The Burdett Psalter (or book of psalms) was probably commissioned by Jean de Villiers, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller who held office around 1285-93 AD. The evidence for this assumption is the appearance of de Villiers' portrait five times throu ghout the Burdett manuscript and this week's illustration shows the Grand Master himself kneeling before John the Baptist.

The Hospitaller's were Knights of the Crusades, dedicated to freeing the Holy Land from the infidel and to the protection of Christendom in the eastern Mediterranean. While the Psalter was in preparation for de Villiers the forces of Islam were closing i n on Jerusalem. De Villiers was summoned back early to Palestine and probably took the Psalter with him, thus carrying fine art into the war zone as one did in the Middle Ages.

After leading his armies in the defence of Acre, the redoubtable de Villiers escaped to Cyprus, badly wounded, on May 18, 1291 which was the day the Holy Land finally fell into Moslem hands. The Burdett Psalter is extremely fine containing 26 exquisite p aintings by the leading Parisian illuminator of the late 13th century known as the Meliacin Master so called after an illuminated romance he created in the mid-1280's.

The history of such a rarity is lost in the mists of time. It must have come into England with its artistic virtues preceding it by 1300 after de Villiers' death, a period when the monied classes were beginning to enjoy fine houses, clothes, music, and r ich possessions such as illuminated books.

The Psalter came to Jane Burdett around 1634 and remained in a cupboard totally unknown to scholars or experts until 1990, in an old box covered with dust. "It is remarkable", as Sotheby's expert, Christopher de Hamel says, "not only that a work of art s hould have remained in private hands for 700 years, but that it should be a manuscript of such supreme quality from the greatest period of French Gothic art".

Manuscripts and fine painted books were very much part of courtly possessions in the two centuries before Gutenberg established printing (circa 1475) . Many of the men who prepared these exquisite things were treated as artisans whose work extended beyon d manuscript illumination into scenery design for theatrical events, decorating for carriages or furniture or even rafter beams. …