Press Gleanings

Illuminating the Renaissance:
The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe

Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts London from November 2003 until 22 February 2004

Report compiled by Valerie Offord

Manuscript illumination, the quintessential mediaeval art form, enjoyed a final flourish during the Renaissance. In the wake of the invention of printing, Flemish illuminators created extravagant and lavish manuscripts in which their art was revitalized and given new direction. The brilliant new style resulted in some of the most colourful and luminous book illumination of the late mediaeval era and quickly gained patronage throughout Europe.

This is the first exhibition to bring together the greatest works produced by Flemish illuminators between 1470 and 1560. There are more than 49 lenders from 14 countries. This international effort assembles a large body of masterworks which have never been seen together, including manuscripts, drawings and paintings from the Getty Collection and the collections of the British Museum, the British Library, the Louvre, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Pierpont Library in New York.

Illuminating the Renaissance encompasses works that reveal the full range of sizes and formats in which illuminators worked: from a monumental genealogy to diminutive private altarpieces on parchment, from huge folio-sized volumes to tiny prayer-books, and from single independent miniatures to books containing a hundred or more examples. The type of texts also vary: from histories, chronicles and romances to Christian devotional writings, breviaries and books. The exhibition presents manuscript illumination within the broader context of painting in oil on panel and explores the close relationship between the two media by including objects by artists who worked in both. The period of Flemish illumination covered in the exhibition marked the last great phase of the art form before the rise of the illustrated printed book which naturally made books produced by hand obsolete.

One of the most intriguing exhibits for an English visitor must be the recently discovered Alnwick Dresden Book of Hours* manuscript. Virtually nothing is known about the artist always identified as the Master of Dresden save that he worked in Bruges from 1495 until about 1515.

Detail from The Flight from Egypt, one of the illuminated illustrations in the recently discovered 15th century Book of Hours at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

God our Saviour, turn to us And avert Your anger from us. God, stretch out to help me, O Lord.

Detail from The Flight from Egypt

Janet Backhouse, former curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library, stumbled across it in an uncatalogued list of about 20 Books of Hours in the Alnwick collection of the Duke of Northumberland. In her opinion the Dresden Master eclipses artists such as Simon Bening, one of the greatest late 15th century Flemish illuminators. ‘The Master of Dresden has more going for him. I find Bening too polished. Dresden is more fun.’ The Dresden Master particularly excels in depictions of landscapes and everyday life. His lavish illustrations in the Alnwick volume of more than 200 folios include The Annunciation to the Shepherds, The Flight into Egypt and about 90 images devoted to individual saints. They are surrounded by sumptuous borders with decorations such as violets with a butterfly alighting on a blossom. He shows an uncanny ability to find humour in familiar stories and shows particular sympathy for coarse or simple characters. His use of colour further reflects the originality of his art.

Ms Backhouse remarked that this was a very expensive commission made originally for Charlotte de Bourbon Montpensier, a cousin of one of Charles the Bold’s consorts. It was acquired in the mid - 18th century for Alnwick and has barely been opened since.

The Duke of Northumberland has lent this newly discovered manuscript to the Royal Academy for its current exhibition. London has not had an exhibition on this scale before partly because of the delicate nature of the manuscripts but also because of the enormous cost in mounting it. It certainly merits a visit if only for Tyndalians to remind themselves that whilst many were translating and printing the Bible, others were still producing exquisite manuscripts often, but not exclusively, with a pertinent religious content.

* Books of Hours were jewel like prayer books designed for private lay use and are so called because the prayers were arranged according to the canonical hours of the day. They would often have a calendar featuring the saints’ days and passages from the Gospels. Owning a Book of Hours in 15th century Europe said as much about status in society as devotion to God.

Sources Press Release Illuminating the Renaissance April 2003 Illuminating the Renaissance
Alberge, Dayla Alnwick discovery throws light on unknown master The Times August 2003.

Geneva International Reformation Museum

Report compiled by Judith Munzinger

Pastor Olivier Fatio recently announced that in April 2005 a new International Reformation Museum will open its doors in Geneva’s Old Town. It will be located next to the historic Cathedral in one of Geneva’s grandest old houses “La Maison Mallet”, built in 1721 on the site of the Cathedral’s cloisters, where the vote in favour of the Reformation took place in 1536. The links with the Reformation are forged even more strongly by the fact that the Consistory of Geneva was formerly housed in the Maison Mallet.

Olivier Fatio, who is working with a small committee of enthusiasts, wants to exhibit only original material. He has been helped in this aim by a substantial donation of 16th century books. He is full of ideas on how to display the gathering collection and says that the challenge is to illustrate religious dynamism through static objects.

The ground floor of the Maison Mallet, is being totally renovated in order to restore its original splendour. In the “Grand Vestibule”, remains of the original sandstone carving have been discovered behind 19th century panelling and, thanks to an engraving of the period, can be identically recreated. Among other restoration projects, a former bathroom will become a music room, but of course for sacred music only!

Article by Etienne Dumont in the Tribune de Genève, 13 November 2003

Valid XHTML 1.0!