Cambridge Illuminations

I’ve just been back again to Cambridge Illuminations, an amazing exhibition of illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. (If you can get to see it, go, it’s now been extended till the end of December. If not, look at the website Its centrepiece is the newly acquired Macclesfield Psalter, which they can display numerous pages of because it’s been taken apart from rebinding. This dates from about 1330, at the height of the art of illumination. (See It’s an amazing work: quite small, very fine and even Gothic hand, and the most vivid and well-drawn marginalia. It has all human and animal life in it (and a lot of mixed human-animal grotesques): a rabbit and a dog jousting, St Dunstan grabbing the Devil’s nose with some pincers, a man on a hobby-duck (like a hobby horse, only with a duck head), etc, etc. The invention never tires, the often tiny drawings are beautifully modelled, the layout plays clever visual tricks, so your eyes travel back and forth across an opening. You could look at it again and again, which is of course the point for a book encouraging frequent devotion.

The rest of the exhibition has nothing else quite as fine, but it does give you a sense of the variety of manuscripts over 1000 years, all from Cambridge collections. They have one of the first books in England (Augustine of Canterbury’s gospels from the late 6th century), Hrabanus Maurus’ bizarre acrostic picture poems, Bibles, a lot of psalters, secular manuscripts and even a few charters. (There’s a lovely small C12 charter (the Pilkington Charter), where a grant of hunting rights gets illustrated round the edge with cheery little pictures of deer and the like.) But it’s also interesting in showing what I think is the artistic decline in illuminated manuscripts in the fifteenth century, which comes prior to the use of printing. The earlier manuscripts all have a very inventive and carefully thought out relationship of different levels of texts and image: the extreme example is some of the glosses they show, which look like the C12 attempt to produce hypertext. In the early C15 however, you can see the format hardening into a frame of main text/picture and then marginal decoration, now firmly separated, unlike the organic linking of the Macclesfield Psalter. By the mid C15 the separation is complete and the main area and the border barely relate to each other. It’s not surprising that the exhibition has quite a lot of single illustrations from this period: it’s now easy to cut out the ‘picture’ from a page, in a way it wasn’t with the earlier illuminations. It also makes the shift to printing (where you have complete separation of text and image) relatively straightforward conceptually. The best of the C15 work is very beautiful as individual pictures but it has lost something to me. I don’t know whether the earlier manuscript sensibility could be retrieved: even today, with computer technology, the tendency is to create/work with/store text and image separately.

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