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The Making of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Lecture by Sally Dormer
Given at the Museum of London, on May 2, 2012
Introduction: Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most interesting, and aesthetically appealing artifacts to survive from the Middle Ages. They can be studied in a multitude of ways. A broad-brush approach might consider issues such as patronage, and function; or a narrower focus concentrate on the scripts employed, the study of Palaeography, or the style of decoration and illustration, the discipline of Art History. This lecture will explore how an illuminated book was produced, in the belief that an understanding of materials and techniques provides a firm foundation from which to pursue other avenues of investigation.
Analysis of the word “manuscript”, literally meaning “written by hand”, conveys the fact that all the books considered here were hand-made, but their production involved much more than the expert penmanship practiced by scribes such as the man seated at his desk in this mid 12th-century illustration. An 11th-century Anglo-Saxon riddle, from the Exeter Book (Number 26) hints at the variety of skills necessary to transform animal skins into parchment; copy texts; paint and gild decoration and illustration, and bind folios between boards; processes that reveal a great deal about medieval scribal and artistic practice.
“An enemy ended my life, took away
My bodily strength; then he dipped me
In water and drew me out again,
And put me in the sun where I soon shed
All my hair. The knife’s sharp edge
Bit into me once my blemishes had been scraped away;
Fingers folded me and the bird’s feather
Often moved across my brown surface,
Sprinkling useful drops; it swallowed the wood dye
(Part of the stream) and again travelled over me,
Leaving black tracks. Then a man bound me,
He stretched skin over me and adorned me
With gold; thus I am enriched by the wondrous work
Of smiths, wound about with shining metal….”
Dr. Sally Dormer has been the course tutor for the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Year Course at the Victoria and Albert Museum since its inception in 1993 and has lectured there since 1984. She is a specialist medieval art historian and lecturer who gained an MA in Medieval Art History and a PH.D on medieval manuscript illumination at the Courtauld Institute, University of London.