The University Record, February 6, 1995

Exhibition explores illumination in medieval manuscripts

By Leslie Stainton
Museum of Art

"Divine Illuminations: Devotional Books of the Middle Ages," a selection of 20 medieval manuscript leaves and two complete medieval manuscripts from U-M collections, are on view at the Museum of Art through March 26.

Organized by Diana Goodwin, a graduate student in the Museum Practice Program and the Department of History of Art, the exhibition incorporates objects drawn from the Museum's holdings in medieval illuminated manuscripts, most of which have never before been on view.

Almost all of the works shown in Divine Illuminations date from the 13th to 15th centuries, and most originated in France, Flanders and Italy. Single leaves from the Museum's collections are united with complete manuscripts from the University's Special Collections Library in a context that explores the role of the book in late medieval religious devotion.

Long before word processors, before Random House, before Gutenberg, a book was painstakingly hand-crafted from parchment, its lines filled with handwritten letters, its margins painted with priceless pigments and gold. Such expense and effort were well justified by the sacred importance of such books, whether a Bible or a Book of Hours. The medieval book was the source as well as the site of "divine illumination."

From early Christian times until the beginning of the Renaissance, the use and manufacture of books remained almost entirely within the domain of the church. Although secular books for laypeople were beginning to appear during the period covered by this exhibition, the manuscripts shown in the exhibition participate in a tradition, hundreds of years old, in which literacy and the arts of the book were inextricably linked to religious devotion. The bulk of the Museum of Art's collection, and all the examples included in Divine Illuminations, came from devotional books used in the daily religious practices of priests, monks and laypeople. These Bibles, liturgical manuscripts, choir books, and books of hours were the books necessary for the rituals of Christian worship.

The word "manuscript" indicates that these are hand-written, not printed, books. "Illuminated" refers to the medieval practice of decorating the pages with colors and gold. Some of the leaves are from simple books whose decoration consists of a few colored initials, while others are richly embellished with complex designs and pictures. For those who created such rich treasures as these, no expense was too great for the glory of God.

Goodwin came to the U-M last year to pursue a doctorate in medieval art history and to participate in the Museum Practice Program, which offers professional training in the museum field.

While studying illuminated manuscripts with Elizabeth Sears, she learned that the Museum of Art possessed a few single leaves from medieval manuscripts. Not only did these objects present a valuable opportunity for study, they represented a small but significant portion of the Museum's holdings that had never before been comprehensively exhibited to the public. With the help of Registrar Carole MacNamara, the various leaves, acquired over a 35-year period, were tracked down and assembled.

Related events

ArtVideos: Art of the Middle Ages, Glories of Medieval Art, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 12:10 p.m.; Medieval Woman, Feb. 15, 12:10 p.m.

Object Lesson: The Medieval Book of Hours, A Daily Ritual, Feb. 16, 12:10 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.

Sunday Tour, Feb. 19, 2 p.m.