For several weeks a large collection of illuminated manuscripts
has been on display in the main level of Mudd. Created during the
Renaissance in Europe, the religious manuscripts on exhibit are
all pieces of art, as they were written by scribes and then illuminated,
often in gold or silver leaf. Illumination of manuscripts was common
practice in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, involving anything
from simple decoration of certain letters in red or blue ink to
complex illustrations in bright colors and gold or silver leaf.
Before the invention of the printing press, book-making was a skilled
craft and art form. The church often coerced calligraphers and artists
into creating copies of bibles, antiphonals or other church documents.
This collection contains many beautiful examples of such works,
including large pages from antiphonals that contain gorgeous pictures
and bibles with detailed miniatures of people from the text.
The most intriguing piece in the collection is a Book of Hours created
in Paris in 1440. Not only does it contain amazingly detailed and
well-executed paintings of the stories from the Bible, it also has
a mystery attached to it. Strangely, the book includes various vernacular
texts alongside the standard religious writings contained in a Book
of Hours. Scholars disagree as to why these texts were included.
There is also a poetic love letter written in the back of the book
in Italian that indicates that the book must have passed through
the hands of several aristocratic families. The quality of the binding,
artwork and calligraphy all indicate that this copy of the book
would have been extremely expensive.
Not only are the illuminations in this collection well worth viewing
for their detail and fine execution, but the texts themselves are
works of art. Since each piece was handwritten the calligraphy used
is unique to its scribe. Although pieces from the same country often
display a similar type of calligraphy, the different styles of writing
vary greatly between countries. This diversity suggests that the
books were in constant use when first made. One Italian antiphonal
was in use from 1375-1650 and contained the writing of nine different
scribes in four different script styles. The illuminated calendar
pages in the collection would also have been in daily use as people
looked up religious holidays, Saints’ days and other special
Not only were Bibles, calendars and antiphonals illuminated, but
the declarations made by important religious figures of the time
were also turned into works of art. The exhibit contains a copy
of the Deuctales of Pope Gregory IX. Deuctales were orders or decisions
made by the pope that had the same force as laws and were often
gathered together in books.
The collection of illuminated manuscripts is not only one of historical
and religious import; it contains social and artistic significance
as well. The illuminations in the books show how artists depicted
people of their time and how people would have viewed religious
ideas. The cost of illuminated manuscripts also indicates something
about the importance of religion in the lives of the people of the
Medieval and Renaissance periods.
The exhibit was created from the collections of illuminated manuscripts
of John M. Lawrence from Wooster, Ohio, who has studied and collected
such manuscripts for over 30 years, and the Oberlin College Special
The exhibit will be leaving Oberlin today, but some pieces will
always be available for viewing in the Oberlin College Library Special