Explore the art (and science) of centuries-old illustrated manuscripts

The Fitzwilliam Museum is celebrating its 200th birthday with a fascinating exhibition of 150 illustrated books and manuscripts.

Precious pigments, pages laced with gold and intricate illustrations – Medieval and Renaissance Europe might have been plagued by poverty, but its art saw no drought of exquisite materials and talent.

Fitzwilliam Museum’s upcoming major exhibition COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts unveils the secrets of master illuminators – who decorated manuscripts, illuminating them with sketches, initials and borders – from the tenth to the sixteenth century.

Highlights of the 150 manuscripts exhibited include treasures such as the Macclesfield Psalter (c.1330-1340) (shown) with its anatomically precise humans and illusion of volume and texture. 

University of Cambridge and international scholars have used their considerable academic clout to provide extra insight for the exhibition, such as the practical applications of the paints and pigments, and their symbolism. 

Head down in the July sun (we’re crossing our fingers) to see this dazzling exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, running from 30 July to 30 December.     

We’ve collected highlights of the exhibition, which brims with ornate, eye-catching fragments of history.

Image: The Macclesfield Psalter (c.1330-1340) - The Anointing of David. East Anglia (probably Norwich), England. 

All images are courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum. 

“Scientific examination has revealed that illuminators sometimes made use of materials associated with other media, such as egg yolk, which was traditionally used as a binder by panel painters,” said research scientist Dr Paola Ricciardi, who is part of MINIARE (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) which collaborates with University of Cambridge and international scholars.

Some pigments are rare in manuscript illumination. For example, smalt was detected in a Venetian manuscript – there is no surprise that the manuscript shared a home with the Murano glass factories, as smalt is produced by grinding blue glass.

Other weird materials used include egg yolk, which was traditionally used as binder by panel painters.

Image: Misal of Cardinal Angelo Accialliuoli (c.1404). Florence, Italy. 

You might assume it was thought only God warranted such artistic attention centuries ago. But not all manuscripts had religious leanings.

“From the 11th century onwards professional scribes and artists were increasingly involved in a thriving book trade, producing both religious and secular texts,” continued Dr Ricciardi.

Image: Book of Hours (c.1480-1490). Illuminated by Vante di Gabrielo di Vante Attavanti. Florence, Italy. 

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Researchers studied sketches beneath the paint, and later additions to the work, to help find out the manuscripts’ owners - and discovered that some manuscripts were edited over many generations to reflect current societal anxieties and changes.

Image: Book of Hours (c.1440-1450) - The Three Living and the Three Dead

Image: Dormition of the Virgin (c.1420) - Master of Murano Gradual. Venice, Italy. 

Image: Book of Hours (c.1480-1490). Florence, Italy. 

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