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230 posts categorized "Featured manuscripts"

22 July 2014

Conservation in the 17th Century

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The ‘Mayerne manuscript’, Sloane MS 2052, is on display at the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour and is also available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.  Compiled over twenty-six years, it reflects Mayerne’s abiding interest during his middle age in the chemistry of painting and the preparation of pigments, glues, varnishes and other substances.  As Making Colour reveals, before the synthesis and manufacture of pigments in the nineteenth century, artists made their own colours from the raw materials, experimenting and developing them through trial and error. 

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Tests for the preparation of a pigment from blackberry juice, from the Mayerne manuscript, England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 26r (inverted)
 

Such information is vitally important for conservators: understanding the chemical make-up of early modern or medieval pigments can help them to determine why paintings have degraded in certain ways, and inform any interventions that they might make to rectify or halt such deterioration.  The Mayerne manuscript is also of interest in the history of conservation as a discipline, since it also contains notes about how paintings were repaired and cleaned nearly four centuries ago. 

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Title page of ‘Inaccessible Glory: or, The impossibility of seeing God’s face whilst we are in the body’, England (London), 1655, 1417.c.44
 

At the close of his sermon, preached at the funeral of Sir Theodore de Mayerne on Friday, 30th March 1655 at St. Martin-in-the-Field, Rev. Thomas Hodges remarked that: 

‘He [Mayerne] was a person of rare accomplishments...I confess I know not any subject which might be either for necessity or delight whereof he was ignorant, nay in which he was not a great proficient, and expert master.  And, which is more admirable, this variety was not attended with the least discernable confusion, but so methodised and digested that he readily at his pleasure commanded it when occasion required, and brought it forth clothed in such language as he spoke him no less an orator than an artist.’ 

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Notes on cyan and pigments derived from blackberries with samples, Sloane MS 2052, f. 23v
 

However tidy-minded and articulate Mayerne might have been in life, his manuscript Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium is something of a jumble.  In Sloane MS 2069 (f. 172r), we find a letter from Mayerne to his friend Dr Monginot in 1630, in which he recognised the need ‘to take up my pen, if I wish to leave to posterity some of my dearest children – that is, the fruits of my genius – as my conscience dictates, and as my friends invite me’.  Yet, as with his medical case notes, Mayerne never succeeded in imposing order upon his artistic notes or preparing them for print during his lifetime.  Those illustrated with pigment samples or coloured diagrams have naturally attracted most attention and, until 2004, there was no complete edition in English of this manuscript.  

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Assorted notes, recipes and observations, Sloane MS 2052, ff. 56v-57r
 

Buried among them are fascinating insights into conservation, 17th-century style.  The above page, for example, contains a note that to repair a cracked painting, it should be washed and rinsed thoroughly, and coated on the back with a thick water paint, that may be removed when necessary.  It is tucked among miscellaneous observations on the purification of light linseed oil by filtering it through a cow’s bladder, or the transparency of ox intestines in which gold has been wrapped. 

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Notes on the repair of oil paintings gleaned from Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153v
 

Sir Anthony van Dyck was a source of other conservation tips.  To repair a peeling oil painting and protect it from a damp wall, he advised painting the reverse with umber very finely ground in oil – a recipe essential for paintings undercoated with glue or water colours. 

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Notes on the cleaning of surface impurities and dirt from oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 14v
 

An unfortunate incident with paintings imported from Italy for Charles I prompted Mayerne to formulate his own ideas.  The paintings had been shipped, ill-advisedly, with a cargo of currants and mercury sublimate.  The former fermented and the latter vaporised, blackening both the oil and tempera paintings in the hold.  Mayerne jotted in the margins that the oils were apparently cleaned with milk – but observed that a more watery liquid would have been better: the oil would have resisted it and prevented the washing away or smearing of the pigments. 

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Notes on the cleaning and restoration of oil paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 15r
 

Mayerne continued with further, more specific instructions: that a picture soiled with dust should be washed with a wrung-out sponge, with any parts painted with the pigment Dutch pink protected from spoiling by glued-on paper.  Apparently, potash from crushed grape skins or urine are also effective! 

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Notes on the bleaching of paper, Sloane MS 2052, f. 61r
 

Mayerne’s interest extended beyond oil paintings to include prints, and he sought information from craftsmen such as Mark Anthony, a painter from Brussels, the royal apothecary Louis le Myre and Jean Anceaux, a bookseller from the French town of Sedan.  From the latter, Mayerne acquired some of the earliest recorded information about the bleaching of paper: one stage involved the soaking of paper in water in which a cod has been boiled. 

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Mayerne’s recipe for cleaning tempera paintings, Sloane MS 2052, f. 147r
 

These and many other such notes formed the basis for subsequent experimentation, also recorded in the manuscript.  The same motivation drove Mayerne’s medical and artistic pursuits – a passion for the study, development and application of chemistry – and sustained the compilation of this notebook over twenty-six years.  He also had an eye for the commercial potential of his discoveries.  Towards the end of the manuscript, there is a recipe for ‘freshening tempera pictures and making them equal to those painted with oil’.  To distinguish it from his other notes, many of which had been obtained second-hand, he recorded in the title that it had been ‘invented by T. de Mayerne, 1632’, perhaps with the aim of ensuring that it remained his or his heirs’ intellectual property. 

- James Freeman

20 July 2014

Enter the Dragon: Happy St Margaret's Day!

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (not to be confused with St Margaret of Scotland or Hungary).  Although St Margaret was declared to be apocryphal in the year 494 by no less an authority than Pope Gelasius, and many people over many years have entertained doubts about her authenticity, she is still widely venerated as a saint today.

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Miniature of St Margaret, from the Hours of Joanna I of Castile, southern Netherlands (Ghent?), c. 1500, Add MS 35313, f. 234v

St Margaret was particularly popular in the medieval period, and her cult and image spread widely.  No doubt this was aided by her inclusion in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.  In this text, Margaret was said to have been born in Antioch in the closing years of the 3rd century.  Although she was the daughter of a pagan priest, Margaret converted to Christianity and vowed eternal chastity.  She moved to an area in what is now Turkey with her godmother, and there caught the attention of a Roman prefect or governor.  In a turn of events that echoes many of the other early female martyrs, the prefect proposed marriage to her, but Margaret chose to remain true to her vow and to Christianity. 

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being brought before the Roman prefect, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 255v

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison being visited by her godmother, from Tectino’s Life of St Margaret of Antioch in verse, northern Italy, first half of the 15th century, Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

In retaliation, the prefect ordered her to be tortured and thrown into prison.  Whilst there, according to the legend, she was visited by Satan in the shape of a dragon.  Resisting temptation yet again, Margaret was swallowed by the dragon, but emerged from his side unscathed and carrying a cross after praying for aid.  Giving up on the idea of dragon-based revenge, her captors eventually beheaded her.

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret emerging from the belly of the dragon, and being beheaded, from the Queen Mary Psalter, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 256r

St Margaret is one of the most instantly recognisable saints in the medieval pantheon, because she is so frequently depicted emerging from the belly of a dragon (for more on the latter subject, see our post The Anatomy of a Dragon).  Her suffrage was widely included in medieval manuscripts, as were miniatures of her torture and death.  Below is a selection of some of our favourite images of St Margaret from throughout our collections; please do let us know if we’ve left out any of your favourites.  As always, you can reach us in the comments below, or on Twitter @BLMedieval.

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from the Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1497, Add MS 18851, f. 406v

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Paris), c. 1440 – c. 1450, Egerton MS 2019, f. 216r

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret in prison, emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours (Use of Sarum), and Psalter, southern Netherlands, c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 3000, f. 42v

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the dragon, from a Book of Hours, France (Troyes?), c. 1460 – c. 1470, Harley MS 2974, f. 165v

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Detail of a bas-de-page scene of St Margaret being thrown into prison, and escaping from the belly of the dragon, from the Taymouth Hours, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Yates Thompson MS 13, f. 86v

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Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the fire-breathing dragon, from the Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 282v

Besides providing us with numerous dragon images St Margaret is the patron saint of pregnancy and expectant mothers (something that has particular relevance to me at the moment!).  Happy St Margaret’s Day, everyone!

-  Sarah J Biggs 

19 July 2014

The Colourful Career of Sir Theodore de Mayerne

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It is a curious fact that at present the Mayerne manuscript (Sloane MS 2052) is probably physically closer to its author than at any time since his death.  Visitors to the National Gallery exhibition Making Colour will be able to see this fascinating compilation of writings and observations on painting and the technology and chemistry of art by Sir Theodore de Mayerne (b. 1573, d. 1655) – and, if they choose to stroll across Trafalgar Square, a monument to the man himself in the church where he was buried, St Martin-in-the-Fields.  This is the latest in a series of exhibition loans this year that has seen British Library manuscripts travelling near and far to exhibitions at the British Museum here in London, the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.  It is also the most recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts.

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The hand-written title page of the Mayerne manuscript, 'Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium', England (London), 1620-1646, Sloane MS 2052, f. 2r
 

Physician to French and English royalty, English and foreign ambassadors and reputedly the most expensive doctor in London, as well as author of a travel guide and a contributor to the first authorised pharmacopeia of the Royal College of Physicians, compiler of a cookery book, diplomatic agent and experimental chemist – Sir Theodore de Mayerne led a varied, distinguished life.  He was born on 28th September 1573 in Geneva to Huguenot parents.  A student of the universities of Heidelberg and Montpellier, Mayerne embarked on a medical career in Paris at the close of the sixteenth century, treating members of the French royal family.  In 1605, he experienced a stroke of good fortune: succeeding where other physicians had failed, he cured Lord Norreys of Rycote (a young kinsman of Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury), who had fallen victim to an epidemic in the city.  With a visit to England in the spring of 1606, this medical success laid the foundations for his emigration to England five years later: he secured the post of chief physician to James I, just as the religious atmosphere at the French court began to sour.  

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/14071811/a0bde7cd-8362-4f14-98f5-2273261d113b.png
Portrait of Sir Theodore de Mayerne by Peter Paul Rubens, in oil and black chalk with grey wash, c. 1630,
British Museum PD 1860-6-16-36. © Trustees of the British Museum. 

Mayerne spent the next forty-four years in England, though he travelled regularly to the continent and in 1620 purchased the estate of Aubonne, not far from Geneva.  Contemporaries remarked upon, and several likenesses bear witness to, Mayerne’s corpulence.  Accounts relate that he did not eat regular meals, but preferred to graze whenever he fancied at a table that was kept well-stocked for this purpose.  He died at his home in Chelsea aged eighty-two on 22nd March 1655, apparently as a consequence of drinking bad wine. 

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Monument to Sir Theodore de Mayerne, St Martin-in-the-Fields, c. 1655
 

For all his considerable medical achievements, Mayerne is remembered today principally for his chemistry experiments and observations.  Although they had a better reception in England, Mayerne’s chemical remedies were frowned upon by the Parisian medical establishment and his approach was, by the standards of the day, rather unorthodox.  

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Mayerne’s notes on the mixing of colours, taken from Peter Paul Rubens while sitting for his portrait, Sloane MS 2052, f. 150r
 

It was this preoccupation that led him to make extensive notes over a quarter of a century upon artistic techniques and the preparation of pigments and oils, many gleaned first-hand from leading artists, artisans and craftsmen of the day.  The notes shown above were taken down by Mayerne almost certainly while he sat for his portrait with Peter Paul Rubens. 

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Mayerne’s notes on oil, taken from Anthony van Dyck, Sloane MS 2052, f. 153r
 

These notes on oil are from an interview with Anthony van Dyck – whom Mayerne describes as a ‘Peintre tres excellent’ – on 30th December 1632. 

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Watercolour sketch of a priming knife, Sloane MS 2052, f. 5r
 

Every stage of the painting process was of interest to Mayerne, even the preparation of the canvas: the above illustration showing the shape of the knife used for this purpose, with a marginal note that such blades were a foot long.  Elsewhere, he recorded van Dyck’s experiments with different undercoats: fish glue caused the paint to flake off and ruined the colours; amber varnish thickened the paint too much; and bismuth white with oil was suitable only for illuminating (f. 10v). 

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Sketch of an artist’s palette and the location of colours, Sloane MS 2052, f. 90v
 

The manuscript contains extensive notes on the preparation of a wide range of colours, taken from a variety of sources – orpiment (a type of yellow), as described by Mr Janson, ‘bon Peintre’ (f. 152r); white oils, from Mr Feltz (f. 142v); white, black, yellow, green and azure from John Hoskins, ‘excellent peintre inlumineur’ (f. 29r); cyan (f. 23v), red (f. 62r), purple (f. 65v), azure (f. 68r), and many others – as well as pen sketches of palettes.

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Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, Sloane MS 2052, f. 80v
 

Most striking are a few leaves in the middle of the manuscript that are filled with neat circles of colour.  Resembling modern-day swatches, these leaves record Mayerne’s testing of the preparation of different pigments: in particular, what formulations best preserved the colour and did not crack as they dried. 

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Mayerne’s experiments with pigments, Sloane MS 2052, f. 81v
 

The Mayerne manuscript is an outstanding witness to the diverse intellectual pursuits of a remarkable individual at the heart of court life in Jacobean and Caroline England.  It is an invaluable record of the seventeenth-century ‘medical arts’: the application of scientific methodologies to the study of artistic techniques, and the contribution that painting could make to the development of chemical knowledge.  For Mayerne, there were no ‘two cultures’: he used a broad palette, drawing on science and art, individually and in combination, to make discoveries of benefit to both.  It is an approach that we in the twenty-first century would do well to imitate. 

Making Colour is at the National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing, until 7th September 2014.

- James Freeman

17 July 2014

This Year's Summer Blockbuster: A Giant List of Digitised Manuscript Hyperlinks!

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Here we go again with the giant list of digitised manuscript hyperlinks, friends!  For our new readers, this is a regular feature of the blog; on a quarterly basis we upload a massive spreadsheet for your persusal.  As always, this list contains all of the manuscripts to date that have been uploaded to our Digitised Manuscripts site by those of us in the Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts section.  This does not include the work of our colleagues in other departments, of course - but we're pleased that this quarter's list does include the newest Greek manuscripts digitised as part of our ongoing project on these glorious texts.  And a few more, including the one below.  Happy clicking!  Here is the list: Download BL Medieval and Earlier Digitised Manuscripts Master List 17.07.13

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Decorated initial 'M' and historiated initial 'B'(eatus) with scenes from the life of King David, from a Psalter and Canticles (Rahlfs 1062), with parallel Latin text, Add MS 47674, f. 2r

- Sarah J Biggs

15 July 2014

Set in Stone

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One of the most famous images from our collection is this one from Egerton MS 3028. It is the earliest picture we have of Stonehenge and is one of close to 100 coloured pen drawings accompanying an abridged version in verse of Wace’s Roman de Brut, copied in Britain between 1338 and 1340. This manuscript is currently on display at the Stonehenge Visitors’ Centre, as part of the temporary Set in Stone exhibition.

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Stonehenge, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 30r

Wace’s version of the legend, adapted from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, tells of King Aurelius, son of Constantine, who, having conquered the usurpers Vortigern and Hengist, decides to erect a monument to the British nobles murdered by the Saxons.  Merlin suggests using huge stones that were brought by a giant from Africa to create a stone circle known as the Ring of Killaraus in Ireland.  When the King is incredulous at this suggestion, saying that the stones are much too heavy to transport so far, Merlin replies that ‘wit is more than strength’.  With the help of his magic powers, the stones are indeed brought back to the Salisbury plain by Uther and an army of men, who defeat the Irish on the way. The image above shows either a giant helping Merlin to erect Stonehenge or helping to take down the stones from the Giant’s ring to be carted off to England.  Of course, modern scientific research has shown that Stonehenge was built from two types of rock that must have been transported from far away: the sarsen stones, a type of sandstone, are believed to come from Marlborough Downs, 20 miles away and the smaller bluestones (even they weigh 25-30 tons) are believed to be from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, 250km away! There have been many hypotheses as to how they were transported, but none, it could be argued, are any more plausible than Wace’s account involving Merlin and the giant.

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The Shipwreck of St Ursula and the 11 000 virgins, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 10r

The Stonehenge image is one of many delights in Egerton MS 3028.  The shipwreck of the 11000 virgins is another.  The story goes that the mainland Bretons sent an army across the channel to help the British fight off the Saxons, and in return they were sent a shipload of young maidens, descendants of Brutus, to be their wives.  Unfortunately the ship was blown off course and the ladies fell into the hands of the pagans of Cologne, who slayed them all, including St Ursula, when they refused to surrender their virginity.  In some versions of the legend, they die in a shipwreck, as we see here.  St Ursula was a popular saint and the story of the 11000 martyred virgins captured the popular imagination for centuries.  Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after them, Cologne has the Basilica of St Ursula and even London may have had a memorial, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, on the site of what is now the ‘Gherkin’ in St Mary Axe street in London, where it was said that one of the axes used by the murderous Saxons was kept.

On more familiar territory, here is the coronation of King Arthur, who sports a magnificent red beard.

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King Arthur crowned by bishops, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 37r

Wace, a cleric from Jersey, composed his French version of the Historia for Henry II, who was keen to portray himself as a worthy successor to King Arthur.  Wace cleverly focused on parts of the story which served the king’s aims, giving it a more factual bent and introducing new details such as the Round Table, which became a symbol of the English court.  The name Brut refers to Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, and Arthur is portrayed as one of a long line of kings including Henry.

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The Death of King Arthur, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 53r

In this manuscript a section has been added updating the chronicle to the reign of Edward III, who established the Order of the Knights of the Garter, an institution with its foundation in the Arthurian legends.

Real historical events are chronicled in the continuation from ff. 56-63, including the reign of Henry I, who is described as the king who made just laws (‘fist fair[e] les bones leis’).

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The Coronation of Henry I, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 60r

The final part of the manuscript contains two romances from the cycle of Charlemagne: Fierabras, and its ‘prequel’, the Destruction of Rome.  Each one is preceded by a full-page image of one of the heroes :

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Fierebras , England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028,  f. 63v

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Charlemagne, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 83v

Once again, pen drawings are inserted in the text, and this one of a trebuchet is from the story of Roland. Note the two fearful knights peeping over the battlements.

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Attacking a tower with a trebuchet, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 106r

It has been suggested that this manuscript may have been produced in the Gloucester area or South Wales, far from the centres of London and East Anglia, where a more sophisticated  style of illumination was common in the mid-14th century.  Though lacking refinement of technique, the artist of Egerton MS 3028 uses gesture and facial expression to bring out the full drama of the events portrayed.   This image of Lucifer is a wonderful example:

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Lucifer is cast into the fire, England, 2nd quarter of the 14th century, Egerton MS 3028, f. 101r

For more images (105 in total), see the entry for Egerton MS 3028 in our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Egerton MS 3028 will shortly be fully digitised and available on our Digitised Manuscripts website.

Chantry Westwell

08 July 2014

Up Close and Personal with the Holy Grail

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A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes the impact of the thousand words themselves can also be stunning, even without the picture. 

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Space was left for a half-page illustration on the first page of Merlin, but we can only guess what might have been planned, since the picture was never added; from Merlin, England, 1300-1325, Add MS 32125, f. 206r

One of my favorite British Library manuscripts has recently been made available on the Digitised Manuscripts website.  This book (Add MS 32125, which includes copies of the monumental Arthurian romances The History of the Holy Grail and Merlin) is not embellished with gold leaf or lavishly painted illustrations, but it remains a jewel nonetheless.  Digital photography, meanwhile, allows us a unique aesthetic experience of the book.

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Two corrections do not mar the beauty of the text: on the second line, a word is crossed out and further cancelled by the three dots written below, while on the third line the erroneous text was written-over, after being physically scraped off with a knife (literally “rasored out,” or “erased”); from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 200v

The manuscript is not a large one – less than ten inches by seven – and such a close-up view gives a perspective on the page that would be impossible in person.  We can see the richness of the colors of the ink and parchment (far from simple black on white), and their texture as well, as the letters almost seem to have a three-dimensional quality sitting on the page: the text almost glows.  And the beauty of the letters is no accident.  ‘Gothic’ handwriting, of which this book is an extremely legible example, sometimes even sacrificed clarity to aesthetic concerns, emphasizing the regularity of letters’ vertical lines at the expense of making those letters easily distinguishable from one another.

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Detail of a pointing hand drawing attention to a moment of textual interest, where a fifteenth-century reader has helpfully recopied his predecessor’s fainter note, still slightly visible underneath; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 82r

This book is not a favorite of mine simply because of its visual appeal, however.  It also offers a highly unusual opportunity to enjoy the dialogue between the text of two of the Middle Ages most important Arthurian romances, and their medieval reading audience.  Often, romances from the so-called ‘Vulgate Cycle’ (see, for example, Royal MS 14 E III and Royal MS 20 D IV are deluxe productions, fit for a king and kept in pristine condition by their royal owners (for more on these manuscripts, see our posts Lancelot and the Quest for the Holy Grail, and Arthurian Manuscripts in the British Library).  This partial copy, however, is on a more modest scale, and must have seemed more approachable to its fifteenth-century readers, who have not hesitated to write notes in the margin or sketch in a tempting blank space.

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Drawings of trees added by a medieval reader; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 205v

Even better, these marks offer clues about the way medieval readers understood the romances they enjoyed.  The twisted trees drawn at the end of the Grail story are not just distracted doodles or spooky blasted oaks.  They are literally ‘family trees’, inspired by the closing words of the text itself: ‘And so now’, the author writes, ‘the story is silent about all the lineages which have come from Celidoine’, founding father of a hereditary line culminating in the Grail knights Lancelot and Galahad, ‘and returns to another ‘branch,’ which is called The History of Merlin’, the story beginning on the following page.

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Detail of one of this manuscript’s several inhabited initials, ‘Ore dit li contes’, ‘Now the story says...’; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 191r

Above, a more professional version proves that this medieval reader was correct in being so struck by the text’s ‘branches’.  A passage on the lineage of Sir Gawain is introduced by an inhabited initial that recalls traditional depictions of a fertile family tree sprouting from the genitals of a sleeping ancestor – but here the foliage sprouts not from the patriarch’s groin, but from his mouth, since the branching of the family-tree is partially conflated with the branching of the story itself.

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Detail of a marginal grotesque tooting his own horn – surely with excitement at his new digital form!; from Estoire del Saint Graal, Add MS 32125, f. 127r

 

-          Nicole Eddy

01 July 2014

A Calendar Page for July 2014

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For more information about the Huth Hours, please see our post A Calendar Page for January 2014.

The aristocratic pleasures of April and May have been left far behind in these pages for the month of July.  Set amongst a riot of red flowers (perhaps characteristic of this month) is a roundel in which two peasants are kneeling and harvesting the wheat crop.  Behind them is a peasant’s hut and what may be a cathedral in the background, while overhead, lightning strikes as a summer storm rolls in.   On the next folio, beneath the continuation of saints’ days for June, is a roundel containing a bushy-tailed lion, for the zodiac sign Leo, within a frame of similarly-threatening clouds.  Below him is a shepherd, standing in a rather downcast manner among his flock (he is not as unlucky as our April shepherd, however), which his dog relaxes in the foreground.

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of people working in the fields, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 7v

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Calendar page for July, with a roundel miniature of a shepherd with his flock, with the zodiac sign Leo, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands (Bruges or Ghent?), c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 8r

- Sarah J Biggs

28 June 2014

Art and Alchemy

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Attention all budding alchemists!  Four of the British Library’s ‘Ripley Scrolls’ (Add MS 5025) are the latest additions to our Digitised Manuscripts website. They are currently on loan to the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf as part of an exhibition on ‘Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation’ until 10 August, starring alongside works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens and many others.

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Detail of a man (?George Ripley) in rustic dress, bearing a staff with a horse’s hoof, from the Ripley Scrolls, late 16th/early 17th century,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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.  They date from around the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the seventeenth century, however their origins are unknown.  An inscription on the second scroll records that ‘This long Rolle was Dra[ur]ne for me in Cullers at Lubeck in Germany  Anno 1588’ – however, two other scrolls bear a similar note, so neither the date nor the location may be established with any certainty.

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Detail of a hermetic illustrating stages in the alchemical process and the revelation of alchemical wisdom,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

The scrolls illustrate stages in the alchemical process of preparing the philosopher’s stone, which was needed to turn base metals into gold.  The scrolls give visual form to the furnaces, flasks and other paraphernalia its practitioners were supposed to use.  They also contain emblematic imagery whose meaning remains obscure to scholars as well as more familiar symbols, such as the zodiac.

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Detail of a zodiac diagram enclosing two dragons, a sun and a moon,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

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Detail of an alchemist, probably Hermes Trismegistus, holding a hermetic flask,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

The large figure at the top of the second, third and fourth scrolls probably represents Hermes Trismegistus, the ancient and likely mythical author of hermetic texts that later formed the basis of alchemical experimentation in the medieval and early modern periods. Alchemists (often holding flasks or overseeing experiments) are depicted throughout the scrolls, alongside symbolic figures of unknown significance. Labels on some of these figures suggest they represent the elements that alchemists sought to transpose during their experiments.

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Detail of alchemists holding flasks,
Add MS 5025, f. 2r.

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Detail of symbolic men and a woman surrounded by flasks, within an enclosure decorated with a dragon vomiting a frog,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

Alongside them is an array of fantastical and grotesque anthropomorphic creatures: a woman with the tail of a dragon, a Bird of Hermes (a bird with the head and torso of a human), and a winged dragon with female features (perhaps representing Satan). There are also real and mythical creatures worthy of any medieval bestiary: toads and frogs, dragons aplenty, lions, and a cockatrice.

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Detail of a Bird of Hermes,
Add MS 5025, f. 4r.

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Detail of a dragon with a cockatrice perched on its head,
Add MS 5025, f. 1r.

George Ripley was an Augustinian canon of Bridlington. He claimed to have studied at the University of Louvain, and there is evidence to indicate connections with Edward IV beyond Ripley’s dedication of The Compound to the king. Another British Library manuscript, Cotton MS Vitellius E X, contains a drawing of Ripley’s tomb at Bridlington, upon which alchemical symbols feature prominently, indicating the integration of alchemy with medieval Christianity.

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Detail of an alchemical distillation furnace,
Add MS 5025, f. 3r.

Seventeen other Ripley scrolls are known to survive, scattered across institutional collections in Britain and the United States. Recent studies have concentrated on comparative study of the different designs found on these scrolls. The four that make up Add MS 5025 represent each of the three main designs – and their availability on Digitised Manuscripts constitutes an important scholarly resource for the study of alchemy in the late medieval and early modern periods. There are two further Ripley Scrolls held at the British Library: Add MS 32621 and Sloane MS 2524A.

- James Freeman