Illustrated (and other) Manuscripts before the Digital Revolution

Pensive Saint (?) writing, with possibly a winged devil above him. Source: Birch-Early drawings and illuminations in the British Museum.

[H/T to  hrsilvers, who verified that the above is a depiction of St. Luke, together with his symbol of a winged ox, or bull.  More on this interesting feature in another blog.]
 Digital techniques are revolutionizing access to collections in libraries and museums.  The recent spate of online sources for manuscripts is particularly wonderful – I have used some of these sources in past blogs treating medieval and earlier subjects, for example:
The Unicorn and the Ark: A Talmudic Story
as well as a variety of entries in this blog category:
Hyenas through History

In prior times,  hand-work was the method of recording, as depicted in the above plate showing a writing saint (or scholar).  That plate, together with the following notes, are taken from a 19th Century book cataloging holdings in the British Museum.  It is interesting to consider how times have changed, based on recent technological innovations:

Early Drawings and Illuminations.  An Introduction to the Study of Illustrated Manuscripts; with a Dictionary of Subjects in the British Museum

By Walter de Gray Birch, F.R.S.L., and Henry Jenner, Senior Assistant in the Manuscript Department in the British Museum.

M.DCCC.LXXIX [1879 ]

THE Authors of this work do not claim to have done anything very meritorious beyond this : that they have occupied their spare time in examining and making alphabetical notes of the Illustrated Manuscripts, which so frequently come under their notice in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum.

‘It has frequently been a subject of desire among the students of Mediaeval and Religious Art that such a work were in existence … although absolute perfection is by no means arrogated to this , the object of the Authors will have been gained if its utility as a Comprehensive Guide Book and Cyclopaedia, rather than as an exhaustive Catalogue or Index be admitted…

It is only by the means of tabulation that the enormous extent of the collections in the British Museum can be comprehended. Thus it is here for the first time the artist learns that, for example, the nation possesses upwards of two thousand five hundred pictures relating to the history of Our Saviour, executed within a range of eight centuries, from A.D. 800 to 1600…

December, 1878

A large portion of manuscript illustrations are of animals and this follows in the tradition of the medieval bestiaries, which both depicted and explained the moral (or immoral) attributes of various animals.  Elephants were a favored beast but because none had been seen by the artists (with the possible exception of an elephant in Paris) they tended to be depicted in most unique ways, as shown in the following illustration from a story about Alexander the Great:

‘Ollifans‘ [elephants] being presented to Alexander, French 15th. Century. Source: Berch. (see also below discussion).

In Berch’s description of this plate, considerable time is spent detailing colors and other aspects of the illumination – a process now largely unnecessary thanks to high quality digital reproductions.

ALEXANDER AND THE ELEPHANTS. From a French Manuscript (Royal 20 B xx, f. 82 b) of the Life of Alexander the Great, written in the fifteenth century, containing a large number of half-page miniatures with illuminated borders. The plate is of the same size as the original, which illustrates a chapter headed “Comment on presenta au Roy Alixandre grant quantity d’Ollifans.”
The king, dressed in a robe of cloth of gold lined with fur, and wearing a gold crown and red stockings, sits on a golden chair, resting his feet on a blue and gold cushion with red tassels. The courtier on his right wears a blue robe lined with brown fur, and the one on the left a red robe lined with white, the first having a gold chain, and the other a green belt and purse. Of the figures behind the king one wears red with white fur and a pink cap, and the other green with a black cap.
The gens du pais [local folk] kneel and present the Ollifans, and are dressed the one in a blue tunic and the other in a green. The elephants are white, with shading, and do not very much resemble the animal as it is at present known. The very green grass is covered with very distinct flowers, and on a very stone-coloured rock in the background there is a very green tree. The sky is painted blue, but the transition state between a real landscape background and the diaper work of earlier dates is shown by the stars being placed at regular distances over it.
The border is composed of fine black lines, with gold leaves, and a few blue and green arabesque leaves at the corners. This picture, with its delicate modelling of the faces, its vivid yet not inharmonious colouring, gives a good instance of the French fifteenth century style of illustration, so common in the case of Romances, Bibles, and Chronicles ; a style which, beginning actually in the latter part of the fourteenth century, continued with little improvement or alteration to about the year 1450.

Current developments will bring to the web increasing numbers of previously ‘hidden’ manuscript collections.  As noted by the University of Exeter:

Medieval manuscripts to get technological makeover

The world’s largest collection of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry may soon be available on a smart device App, as part of a project initiated by the University of Exeter.

The App is in its prototype stage of development but in time will introduce school age pupils to the world of medieval manuscripts and the history of the book.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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2 Responses to Illustrated (and other) Manuscripts before the Digital Revolution

  1. hrsilvers says:

    Nice post! Your main image up at the top is an author portrait St. Luke with his symbol, the ox. The caption, if I understand correctly, came from a 19th century catalogue? It’s mindblowing that a cataloger of medieval works would not have recognized one of the most obvious and consistent instances of medieval Christian iconography (but then, Art History was just a fledgling discipline back at that point). Thanks again for this post!


    • dianabuja says:

      Thank you so much for your information on the image, which I am incorporating into the blog. An ox… it does look a bit vicious, though. Perhaps its an auroch-ox…They were still extant at that time.
      Yes it is strange St. Luke is not so-identified, though following on your remark about being afledgling discipline, perhaps he and his co-author simply forgot and whoever edited at the publisher (if there was a publisher editor) also missed the lack of a caption – it was published in 1878. But it is quite an interesting little book. Nice these older pubs are going digital!
      Thanks again!


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