June 29, 2011

More Medieval Manuscripts at the Rauner Library

Book of Hours, France ca. 1440, 7 3/4 x 6 1/4 in., Ms. Codex 003141

We are very lucky in this part of the world to have a special collections library like the Rauner at Dartmouth College. Last year I discovered that any member of the general public could go there and look at their amazing holdings of manuscripts and rare books; we are welcomed, and allowed to photograph. I wrote a blog post about my experience, which you can read here. There is nothing like the feeling of handling and turning the pages of an ancient book, noticing the difference in weight and texture from one page to the next, seeing the individual hand of the artist, sensing history in your touch. Because they are made with parchment, the consistency of paper we moderns are accustomed to does not exist. Each sheet is unique, as is each page, whether text or image. Illuminated manuscripts are also important to me because it was seeing a show of a Book of Hours, The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, at the Morgan Library that inspired me to begin to paint on parchment.

Yesterday I had a desire to look at art, and the place to look at it closely is the Rauner Library. The first thing I saw when I walked in was the elephant folio of Audubon's Birds of America in a large glass case. How I would love to turn the pages of that amazing book! but my list of Books of Hours was quite wonderful enough. I looked at four manuscripts from the 15th century, three French and one Flemish. In this first manuscript, Ms. Codex 003141 (the links are to the manuscript pages on the Rauner Library website; you can browse the collection here.), I fell in love with the small, approximately an inch wide, images of seasonal activities. Above, I made a collage of several of these and below, you can see how they looked on the page. Of course, as with all my blog posts, you can click on the images to enlarge them.

Book of Hours, France, ca. 1450-1475, 7 3/4 x 5 1/8 in., Ms. Codex 001918

When I see the refinement and marvelous detail of the borders surrounding the illuminations, I have a feeling that the makers of these pages loved color, loved ornament, loved nature. I believe that much of this was convention, but such a terrific convention. Attention and care and sometimes even humor were lavished on these books: on the lower edge of the border are two creatures, a bird and what looks like it might be a mouse, convening around a flower.

Ms. Codex 001918, detail of above

Ms. Codex 001918

The other aspect of this Book of Hours that I found entrancing were the decorative flourishes emerging from each illuminated letter, flowing with grace and energy, as though to enliven the regularity of the gothic script, or even add a touch of wit.

Book of Hours, France, 15th century, ca. 4 x 3 in., Ms. Codex 001919

This is a tiny book with paint that is clearly worn, missing or rubbed off entirely, as in the page below. It is touching to think of the years of hands turning pages and the toll they take. When I think of how much does survive, I realize how precious these objects must have been to their owners, how cared for and treasured.

Ms. Codex 001919

Book of Hours, Flemish, ca. 1425, 7 3/4 x 5 1/8 in., Ms. Codex 003134

I have a soft place in my heart for "primitive" painting, as in the illuminations of this manuscript and the one before. I find the flat forms and naive renderings of creatures and landscape engaging and charming; their directness enhances an air of religious faith. I wonder if a different artist painted the borders because they seem to me to have more sophistication than the narratives.

Ms. Codex 003134

Isn't the distant landscape wonderful, with the bannered castles and odd bird forms flitting through the air? The clarity and simplicity of the illumination is a respite from the busy decorative border and dense illuminated Gothic text.

Ms. Codex 003134

I love this Last Judgment: the souls floating about on a green sea, the castle of Heaven on one side and a strange gaping red maw on the other, with curlicues of gold surrounding Christ. The color relationships, subtle with the green and violet and soft red, more strident with the splashes of deep ultramarine, create a bouncing pattern.

Antiphonal, Catholic Church, ca. 1525-1575, 33 x 23 in., Ms. Codex 003203

Finally, to end my visit, there was a huge book resting on one of the tables and I couldn't resist opening its very heavy original cover and looking inside. It is an Antiphonal, music for a call and response kind of singing, for congregation or religious community. I was very intrigued by the notation, which is square; it made the entire page look to me like a modernist grid, with squares rising and falling along it. But on another page I found this gloriously fanciful illumination, adorning with flowing plant forms the severe geometry of notes and Gothic script.

Ms. Codex 003203

I encourage anyone within driving distance of Hanover, NH, and with an interest in ancient manuscripts, to take a trip to the Rauner Library; it will be an aesthetic experience like no other you've had before.


  1. Wow, amazing! I hope to make the trip someday. If you see any painting ladies in the illuminations next time you are paging through, please send their photos to me! ;-)

  2. thanks for the tour. wonderful grid you made. the antiphonal pages are very close to something I've been working on, so: much appreciated.

  3. Nancy, aren't they great? maybe you can see some closer to your home. These are all Books of Hours so wouldn't be likely to have women painting since it's neither religious nor a seasonal activity.
    rappel, I thought that those notes in the Antiphonal looked very modern; I look forward to seeing what you're working on that's close to them.