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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Exhibitions: the beauty of illumination in the not-so-Dark Ages

To celebrate the bicentenary of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the principal museum of the University of Cambridge, the museum is showcasing its impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.
One of the ‘Ripley Scrolls’, an Alchemical scroll from England (first half of 16th century), Latin and Middle English, ink and wash on paper, mounted on linen. Courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
One of the ‘Ripley Scrolls’, an Alchemical scroll from England (first half of 16th century), Latin and Middle English, ink and wash on paper, mounted on linen. Courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

To celebrate the bicentenary of the Fitzwilliam Museum, the principal museum of the University of Cambridge, the museum is showcasing its impressive collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts contains 150 manuscripts spanning the 8th to the 17th centuries, all telling the story of the evolution of this precious art form in Europe from a scientific and aesthetic perspective.

The exhibition is the result of four years’ scientific research using imaging and spectroscopic analysis to better understand the illuminators’ techniques.

“A popular misconception is that all manuscripts were made by monks and contained religious texts,” says research scientist Dr Paola Ricciardi, “but from the 11th century onwards, professional scribes and artists were increasingly involved in a thriving book trade, producing both religious and secular texts.

Scientific examination has revealed that illuminators sometimes made use of materials associated with other media, such as egg yolk, which was traditionally used as a binder by panel painters.”

Importantly, the exhibition also brings to the fore the learning and philosophy of an age most often associated with unenlightenment. Its vivid colour and expressive forms reflecting energy and artistic creativity, as well as lively religious and secular debates of the times.

A new online resource, Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making, accompanies the exhibition, with hundreds of images and infrared photographs of the collection available online. It allows visitors to view a wealth of information and scientific data about some of the collection’s most important manuscripts.

Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts runs until December 30. For more information and to view Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making, visit www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Clare Dight is editor of The Review.