An exhibition in the V&A museum at the moment is both a delight to the eye, and a reminder of how people would often chop medieval books up and sell off the nice pages as collectables. The most desirable pages being the ones that contained illuminations, the richly decorated illustrations that make old documents such a delight to look at, even if a person can’t understand a word of what the text says.
The illuminations in books, always painted by hand, even after the invention of the printing press, enliven the book, dropping miniature stained glass windows into the pages.
Unlike church windows which were often designed to teach the Bible to the illiterate, illuminations in books were aimed at the literate, so were more decorative and less educational. It’s a curious twist then that for many of us, we are as illiterate in Latin and Old English as a medieval peasant would have been, so the illuminations are decorative but tell us nothing, unlike the medieval Lord who would have understood the text.
Sadly though, as printing became cheaper and books more widespread, these older books lost their literary value, and became valued for the illustrations, not the word, and were often chopped up and the pages sold off to collectors.
This became so routine in the 18th and 19th centuries that most illuminations are no longer in the books that housed them, but are standalone images.
And that brings us to the exhibition at the V&A, for all the barbarism of chopping old books up is to our modern way of thinking, it does mean that it’s a lot easier to see the paintings they once contained. Rather than display cases with a huge book held carefully open and you having to peer at a page at an awkward angle, the drawings are on walls, framed and easy to see.
Yes, they’re without context, divorced from meaning, but the reason they were collected — or saved if you prefer — is because they are so beautiful to look at.
Ranging from landscape scenes to decorative letters, the exhibition is a feast for the eyes, with documents ranging from the 12th-century onwards.
One of the illuminations in the exhibition is by a monk from Florence, whose skills were so highly valued that after he died, his right hand was preserved in a shrine.
A commentary on the Book of Job has been chopped up to save just the initial letter of each paragraph, such as the H and B, shown decorated with hunting dogs and foliage. Timely is the 1500s manuscript showing a large letter R being decorated with the scenes from the nativity.
After a room of old documents chopped up, the exhibition turns to the revival of illuminations in boos.
In the 19th-century, doubtless aided by the gothic revival, people turned to the illuminations as educational tools to learn how to create similar images in modern publications, and giving them new uses probably helped save many documents as they were bought by museums and organisations such as the Arundel Society, which specialised in decorative lettering.
Many decorative books were produced at the time, tied in with the arts and crafts movement for more organic production of art in the home.
And even today, there’s a wonder in receiving a card with handsome calligraphy instead of the average person’s scrawl on it.
If you’ve ever seen a book of collected drawings on Antiques Roadshow being valued by the page, as often happens, that’s why books get chopped up. You can trawl auction websites and see illustrations and single pages from old newspapers being sold as collectables. The art of chopping things up and selling them piecemeal has not died out.
In a way, it’s tragic that the documents were chopped up, but equally, it’s highly likely that many of them wouldn’t have been saved — a single book can be lost, but scatter its contents to hundreds of locations, and some of them will survive.
And now they’re on display for everyone to see.
The exhibition, Fragmented Illuminations: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscript Cuttings is open until 8th May 2022 at the V&A Museum and is free to visit. It’s in rooms 88A-90, which can be found on the 2nd floor on the eastern side of the museum, next to the Theatre gallery.
At the moment, you need to book a free ticket to visit the museum, from here.