Search

#187: ILLUMINATION.

#187: ILLUMINATION. In the fourth chapter of Christopher de Hamel’s wonderful History of Illuminated Manuscripts, he borrows from the thirteenth century the tale of a student being roundly berated by his father, who sent him to Paris to study with a generous allowance only to have him return, “having squandered his money on manuscripts frivolously decorated with gold initials.” The manuscripts were, in the Latin phrase, “babuinare in literias aureis,” gussied up with baboons and who knows what other fantastical creatures, unavailable in the father’s day and no doubt seen as the last word in waste and extravagance. “This chapter,” de Hamel concludes with magnificent innocence, “will try to take the son’s point of view.”

Woe be to one who cannot sympathize, and de Hamel has loaded his argument with a wealth of illustrations, any one of which is enough to make you a little goofy with admiration and pleasure. He has become the unquestioned laureate of this form of art, and one of the surprises of the book is that there is quite as much pleasure in reading it as in looking at it. He brings you through the art’s evolution, from the earliest forms intended for missionary use, their creation and decoration in the English and continental monasteries, their elaboration and enlargement as liturgical objects (the famed Book of Kells, he points out, is not a book you put in your lap and read), and their continuance as books for priests, aristocrats, students and, finally, collectors. It begins, in summary, as the end of the Roman empire edges into the medieval period, when the scroll gave way to the codex with its folded and bound pages, and ends with the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, nudging into the Renaissance with the invention and spread of printing. The term “illumination,” more strictly meaning decoration with the use of the gold and silver that gives those pictures their reflective lustre, he uses here more generally for any manuscript with decoration.

And what decoration it was: all the discoveries of medieval painting technique in miniature, applied to biblical scenes, lives of the saints, myths, grammars, bestiaries, all blossoming on the way with detailed and antic marginalia of birds, beasts and flowers, swirls and trills of calligraphic imaginings, staring prophets and dancing baboons. Some of it was practical, as colorful initials marked the beginning of a chapter or verset, and much of it the pure wild flight of imagining, as figures leap out like the grotesques on the walls of colleges and cathedrals. Those who welcomed the advent of printing saw it as a way of more easily disseminating faith and knowledge; but with mass production came the end of each and every book being an individual creation, no one of them exactly like any other. The manuscripts were the wealth of any household, more likely than other objects to be repaired and preserved, and more of them survive than any other period object. “Books,” de Hamel writes, “have a knack for surviving.”

So while many of the manuscripts are still in the hands of private collectors, a good number of the most famous are in museums and libraries. As I have written elsewhere, the visual arts often require that we go to them: the paintings of Munch and Friedrich are in northern European museums, and the mosaics of San Marco, the frescoes of Scrovegni are not likely to go on tour. In his Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, de Hamel gives us twelve chapters and twelve journeys to a dozen of the great manuscripts, from the Gospels of Saint Augustine in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, to the Spinola Hours in the Getty Center in Los Angeles, by way of the Book of Kells in Dublin, the Morgan Beatus in New York, and the Carmina Burana in Munich. If in his earlier History he has strained to keep a serious and scholarly demeanor, in his Meetings he has let loose his inner geek, and the descriptions of the flights, the meetings with docents and attendants, the minute particulars of the works themselves are obviously one step away from a delirious haze of pleasure. It has something of the breathlessness of the old children’s book titles like So You’re Going to Paris! and seems to be entire worlds away, for all its scholarship, from any threat or hint of blasé sophistication. De Hamel, noting with rapt eye a similarity of the Copenhagen Psalter to the illumination done in its time in the British Isles, or musing on the square format of the Leiden Aratea, is obviously a man having the time of his life. Woe, I say again, to any who cannot sympathize.

As I write this (2021), de Hamel’s most recent publication is The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket. This refers to a Psalter associated with Becket, now at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and de Hamel gives us a monograph not only on the book as an object of medieval art but on its time and setting. It’s a fine pendant to the Meetings volume, but also no small chance to meditate on the subject of relics and antiquities in general—the hair-raising psychic itch one may feel in the presence of something immensely old or revered, a feeling that seems beyond the mere power of suggestion. In any case, The Book in the Cathedral is, like de Hamel’s other studies, a lovely thing to read, look at and hold in your hand. Enjoy.


A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. Phaidon, second edition, 1994.

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval

World. Penguin, 2017.

The Book in the Cathedral: The Last Relic of Thomas Becket. Allen Lane, 2020.

Recent Posts

See All

#186: I WANTED TO PAINT PARADISE.

#186: I WANTED TO PAINT PARADISE. I read Joseph Stroud’s extraordinary collection Of This World: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) almost in a state of suspense. The opening sequence,

#185: THE LADY HAS HER SAY.

#185: THE LADY HAS HER SAY. Sailing now well past its twentieth anniversary, Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife (Faber, 1999) remains an impudent delight. With the mere addition of a letter

#184: PERSUASION.

#184. PERSUASION. Flora Poste, the supremely confident heroine of Cold Comfort Farm (who resembles no one so much as Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse), when asked what she intends to do with her life, say