Illuminated & Calligraphic Manuscripts: An Exhibition Held at the Fogg Art Museum & Houghton Library February 14-April 1, 1955

Illuminated & Calligraphic Manuscripts: An Exhibition Held at the Fogg Art Museum & Houghton Library February 14-April 1, 1955

Illuminated & Calligraphic Manuscripts: An Exhibition Held at the Fogg Art Museum & Houghton Library February 14-April 1, 1955

Illuminated & Calligraphic Manuscripts: An Exhibition Held at the Fogg Art Museum & Houghton Library February 14-April 1, 1955

Excerpt

The collecting and study of illuminated and calligraphic manuscripts for their artistic rather than for their textual content is of comparatively recent date. So much so, that even today some American librarians are inclined to doubt the need to acquire them from this point of view, especially since, by historical and geographic necessity, this country's great public and university libraries did not share in the spoils from the break up of European monastic and cathedral collections long ago. Because the literary content of this type of manuscript was long considered to be common or outmoded, they usually did not represent required reading. And finally, since they have become exceedingly expensive through having always appealed to the bibliophile, they might be regarded as a superfluous luxury. Therefore, it has been reasoned, why not concentrate on more easily available printed books, in order to meet scholarly requirements and to emulate the standards of the great libraries abroad?

Other arguments against buying illuminated manuscripts have not been hard to find throughout the annals of collecting. For example, there were always as many cases of vandalism and greed recorded as there were instances of sincere antiquarianism. Certain ecclesiastical princes, as late as the eighteenth century, had no inhibitions about cutting miniatures from the ancient volumes preserved in the foundations over which they presided, simply as souvenirs for distinguished guests. They are even recorded to have given precious vellum from the same source to be used as a base for pastries! Although today we are shocked by these particular instances of barbarism, they are not so very much worse than the disgusting habit of present day interior decorators who are using parchment leaves of old missals and antiphonaries for scrap baskets and lamp shades.

In the nineteenth century the attitude of owners and librarians shifted. Cuttings and miniatures, carelessly handled in the previous period, joined the richly illuminated Livres d'Heures of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in the cabinets of the more ambitious private collectors. But with the notable exception of the British Museum, and the Print Room of the Berlin Museum, book illumination was not yet recognized as important to a great art museum or public library. For example, the Municipal Library of Frankfurt refused to purchase the famous miniatures removed some time before from Étienne Chevalier Book of Hours which were offered to it by a private collector of that city. And they were only bought by the Musée Condé, at Chantilly, to be framed and placed on the walls between Raphael's paintings. Yet, by this act, book miniatures were, for the first time, promoted to the position of a major art.

Miniatures, not cut out from their texts, are difficult to display, and require particularly ingenious showmanship. This fact was, and still is, chiefly responsible for the reluctance of the art museums to acquire illuminated manuscripts. Because of it, public exhibitions of book miniatures have been few and far between. Only after this last world war have such exhibitions been notably popular and successful.

Better methods of display have also been accompanied by recognition of the importance of a whole manuscript, a single leaf, or a piece of calligraphy as an independent document in the history of art -- not simply as a collector's item for the ardent bibliophile. Thanks to the advancement of mediaeval studies, our generation has been taught to realize that during the Middle Ages, the leading tendencies in pictorial and sculptural design were chiefly transmitted through illuminated manuscripts. But, unfortunately for American libraries and mu-

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