The British Library has a long track record in supporting exhibitions at home and abroad – and 2014 has been no different. This year has seen medieval manuscripts from the British Library travel near and far to a great diversity of exhibitions. Here are some of the highlights:
Mapping Our World: National Library of Australia, Canberra, 7 November 2013-10 March 2014
A two-page mappa mundi from the beginning of a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, England, late 14th century, Royal MS 14 C IX, ff. 1v-2r
This fascinating exhibition took a look at how people through the ages had drawn and depicted the world around them in maps, atlases and charts. Medieval mappae mundi are an important facet of this story, containing not just geographical but also theological, historical and legendary material. Two manuscripts that contained a mappa went to Canberra for the exhibition: a copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (Royal MS 14 C IX) and a copy of Macrobius’ Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio (Harley MS 2772).
Set in Stone? How Our Ancestors Saw Stonehenge: Stonehenge Visitor Centre, 18 December 2013-14 September 2014
Miniature of Merlin building Stonehenge, from Wace, ‘Roman de Brut’, England, second quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r
Stonehenge has remained a source of fascination and speculation over the centuries, as this exhibition illustrated with two British Library manuscripts: Egerton MS 3028, a copy of Wace’s Roman de Brut; and Cotton MS Nero D VIII, a large compilation of historical texts, including Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Along with his contemporary Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey was one of the earliest chroniclers to comment on the monument and weave a story about its origins. Wace used Geoffrey’s fantastical work of history for his own Roman de Brut, a verse epic in French about Britain’s ancient kings. The copy in Egerton MS 3028 is remarkable for containing the earliest depiction of the monument: specifically, of Merlin lifting a lintel on top of two of the standing stone, to the evident wonderment of onlookers.
Vikings: Life and Legend: British Museum, 6 March-22 June
King Cnut and Queen Emma in the New Minster Liber Vitae, Stowe MS 944, f. 6r
The New Minster Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944) formed part of an exhibition that challenged preconceptions about the Vikings by bringing together new research with a glittering (and often fearsome) array of treasure, loot, weaponry, jewellery and surviving fragments of a longboat. This manuscript, begun in Winchester in 1031, opens with a full-page drawing that commemorates the presentation to the church of New Minster by King Cnut and his wife Emma (Ælfgifu) of a cross – and, significantly, their integration into the spiritual as well as temporal realms of England.
Art and Alchemy: Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, 5 April-10 August
Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century, Add MS 5025, f. 2r
Four of the British Library’s Ripley Scrolls (Add MS 5025) were on display for this exhibition, which featured works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Rubens and many others. Based on The Compound of Alchemy of George Ripley (d. c. 1490) and other pseudo-scientific texts, these scrolls are intriguing, bizarre and perplexing in equal measure, featuring arcane experiments, human-animal hybrids, and cryptic inscriptions.
Louis the Bavarian: Centre for Bavarian History, Regensburg, 16 May-2 November
Miniature of king Robert of Anjou sitting on his throne, with inscribed fleur-de-lis in the background, from the Address of the City of Prato to Robert of Anjou, Italy (Tuscany), c. 1335, Royal MS 6 E IX, f. 10v
Two other British Library manuscripts made the journey to Germany in the spring, for an exhibition on Louis IV, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 1328-1347. The first loan was Royal MS 6 E IX, a lavish copy of an address by the city of Prato to Robert of Anjou, from whom it sought protection from Louis. The other loan was of a German Apocalypse manuscript, Add MS 15243, made in the early fourteenth century. This manuscript is a rare survival, with a distinctive decorative style, which marks it out from the more common Latin or French Apocalypses (a blog post on this manuscript will be forthcoming in the New Year).
Making Colour: National Gallery, 18 June-7 September 2014
Theodore Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, from ‘Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium’, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 80v
In June, the Mayerne manuscript (Sloane MS 2052) headed down the road to the National Gallery for an exhibition on the science behind the making of pigments, whether made from crushed insects or precious minerals, or acquired locally or from distant lands, and how and why they might deteriorate over time. Theodore Mayerne (d. 1655), court physician to James I and Charles I, assembled a notebook that records his own personal experiments with colour, including notes taken from leading artists of the day, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.
The Art of Charlemagne: Centre Charlemagne, Aachen, 20 June-21 September
Incipit page at the beginning of the Gospel of St Mark, from the Harley Golden Gospels, Germany (?Aachen), 1st quarter of the 9th century, Harley MS 2788, f. 72r
Harley MS 2788 – the Harley Golden Gospels – was on display for three months in the city of Aachen, where it may have been made in the first quarter of the ninth century. The exhibition brought together works of art from Charlemagne’s time. It is one of a group of books closely associated with the German emperor and his capital at Aachen, reflecting his personal initiatives and tastes. Its name is appropriate: prefatory canon tables, a title page, full-page miniatures of the Evangelists and corresponding incipit pages are all richly illuminated with gold.
Snip It! Stances on Ritual Circumcision: Jewish Museum, Berlin, 24 October 2014-1 March 2015
Detail of a miniature of the Circumcision of Abraham, from James le Palmer’s Omne bonum, London, c. 1360–1375, Royal MS 6 E VI, f. 3r
Miniatures depicting the circumcision of Abraham in two British Library manuscripts went on display in Berlin for this exhibition that explored the roots of this ritual and the Abrahamic covenant through to modern-day references in popular culture. The Egerton Genesis (Egerton MS 1894) contains 149 miniatures in pen and colour washes, accompanied by captions derived from Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica. The first volume of James le Palmer’s unfinished encyclopaedia, the Omne bonum (Royal MS 6 E VI), is prefaced by a series of 109 tinted drawings of Old and New Testament scenes.
The Magi: Legend, Art and Cult: Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, 25 October 2014-25 January 2015
The Adoration of the Magi, from the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, England (Winchester), 963-984, Add MS 49598, f. 24v
In 1164, relics of the Magi were deposited at Cologne Cathedral, where they remain. 850 years later, an exhibition looks at their important place in medieval art as the first men to recognise Christ as the Son of God. The British Library’s contribution is the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (Add MS 49598), made 963-984, which contains a full-page illuminated miniature of the Adoration of the Magi within an ornate foliate border.
- James Freeman