Illuminated manuscripts combine the pleasures of art and literature.
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You can collect paintings. Or you can collect books. But if you collect illuminated manuscripts, you can do both at the same time. That is a joy known to a select group of enthusiasts who have no need to show off their treasures by hanging them on the wall. They are content to keep them on shelves, enfolded between leather covers, safe from the elements and from the glare of light, just the way they were preserved during the centuries that separate us from their creators.
Opening a manuscript from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance is an astonishing experience—due to the nature of parchment, the pages often feel as fresh and look as creamy white as the day they were made. The finely detailed little paintings retain their jewel-like colors, often heightened with gold, a metal that never tarnishes. The picture frame is like a portal into another world opening up in the middle of the page; you feel as if you step through into a glittering Medieval world of Gothic spires, elaborately costumed saints and sinners, angels and monsters, all set into landscapes of impossibly green hills and lapis lazuli skies. And of course, each page is also a portal into the minds of the author and the scribe.
Originally, the term “illuminated manuscript” referred to a book whose illustrations contained gold or silver, but today it denotes any manuscript with painted illustrations, whether in oil, gouache or watercolor. Although certain unique modern and contemporary artists’ books could technically count as illuminated manuscripts, for collecting purposes the category embraces books made before the invention of printing, as well as those that continued to be made in the old way during the century or two thereafter. Though the Renaissance saw an explosion of magnificent illustrated printed books, the printing process could not really accommodate color. Engraved illustrations were black and white, sometimes hand-colored after the fact with watercolors. In an illuminated manuscript, the color is an integral part of the design, applied not only to the illustrations but also to the decorated capital letters at the beginning of a paragraph, to floral decorations that often swirl around the edges of the pages, and to even to passages of text written in colored ink. Unlike with a printed book, the ink isn’t pressed into the surface but brushed on; hard, smooth parchment, which is not suitable for printing, is perfect for the precise strokes of the quill. So precise are those strokes, whether the severe up and down of Gothic script or the gently rounded (and much more legible to modern eyes) Roman and Italic varieties, that it is impossible to identify a scribe by his handwriting alone.
Due to the time-consuming nature of manuscript making and the small size of the elite market for reading matter, the scribes of the Middle Ages produced far fewer books than did the presses of the Renaissance. Completing an illuminated manuscript could take six months to a year. That, plus the fact that many manuscripts are now in libraries or museums, might make the would-be manuscript collector give up before he or she begins. But there’s no need for despair—a surprising number of gorgeous works are available on the market. One dealer that has made a specialty of illuminated manuscripts is Les Enluminures, which has locations in Chicago, New York, and Paris. Owner Sandra Hindman has made it her mission over the past 22 years to bring this recondite collecting field to greater prominence, and her gallery has a welcoming atmosphere that couldn’t be more different from a gloomy medieval scriptorium or a breathlessly hushed modern library.
During a recent visit, the New York space was buzzing with excitement due to the impending arrival of a Russian TV crew, who were planning an item about a startling discovery that the staff of Les Enluminures had made—a tiny drawing made by a scribe in the corner of a late 16th-early 17th-century music manuscript that appears to be the first European depiction of a kangaroo. If it is, it would resolve a controversy among historians as to when European explorers first reached Australia, not to mention enlarging our understand of how artists deal with new perceptions of nature. Gallery director Keegan Goepfer explains that scribes, to make the long hours go faster and to put a little individuality into a largely anonymous job, often inserted whimsical doodles, such as the kangaroo and a vast assortment of biologically impossible, caricature-like conflations of human beings with real and mythical animals.
In the Middle Ages, humor went hand in hand with piety. Most illuminated manuscripts are religious in nature, and some of the most visually appealing are the Books of Hours, devotional manuals that incorporate prayers and Bible readings appropriate to various times of the day. Luckily for collectors, they are also the most common type of illuminated manuscript available today. Les Enluminures has a Book of Hours (Use of Rome) from Bruges in the Southern Netherlands, circa 1450, featuring 37 full-page miniature illustrations, 13 small miniatures, and eight ornamental initial letters. A thick compact book, almost cubical, it fits neatly into two hands. Flipping the supple pages, it is hard to believe that it’s six and a half centuries old. It is ascribed to the Masters of the Gold Scrolls, a school of artists active between 1415 and 1455, named for their heavy use of this particular decorative element.
Also on view at Les Enluminures is the first volume of a two-volume Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) made in northern France circa 1260–1280, in a late 15th or early 16th-century leather binding. Of particular interest are the extensive marginal notes made by a scholar sometime in the 14th century. Music manuscripts are an important genre, and the gallery has a particularly elaborate one on hand, a Gradual, or choir book, large enough to be seen clearly by all the members of a choir. Made in the 1430s near Milan, it features not only text in black and red but also musical staff notation, not to mention five complex, very high-quality illuminations by the so-called Olivetan Master. One of these depicts Olivetan monks (an order of Benedictines) being conducted in Gregorian chant by an abbot in a cloister whose walls are painted to look like a starry sky. On a jeweled lectern in the middle of the room is an Olivetan Gradual, so the book seems to portray itself in a sort of Medieval prefiguring of the postmodern infinite regression. Jewish illuminated manuscripts, written in Hebrew, are also sought after by collectors; the gallery is offering a 17th-century manuscript on paper of a Sefer Evronot, a series of tables that coordinate the Jewish religious calendar with the Christian religious calendar, for the use of merchants.
The most desirable, complete illuminated manuscripts can cost well into the six and even seven figures. Beginning collectors may want to get their feet wet by buying a single-leaf miniature or a capital, which can be in the $5,000–10,000 range. They would have been detached from their books a long time ago; today, dealers consider breaking up a manuscript and selling its leaves separately to be a cardinal sin. Dismembering a manuscript is like fragmenting a mind, and the true collector comes to see these ancient books as living minds that talk to us and to each other. For a manuscript to be unpublished—previously unknown to scholars—increases its value tremendously. Even today, there are still discoveries waiting to be made in old collections—and also, as with the little kangaroo, amidst the leaves of well-known books.
It is still possible for today’s collector to experience the excitement of a Renaissance humanist like Poggio Bracciolini, the Florentine scholar who in 1416 found the Roman writer Quintilian’s long-lost treatise on rhetoric in a monastery. For the humanist, the book was a living being, identical to the author himself. “Oh wondrous treasure, oh unexpected joy!” Poggio wrote to a friend, adding that Quintilian would have “perished shortly if we hadn’t brought him aid in the nick of time. There is not the slightest doubt that that man, so brilliant, genteel, tasteful, refined, and pleasant, could not longer have endured the squalor of that place and the cruelty of those jailers.”