British Library digs out decorative paintings to brighten up dark ages

Library will display treasures such as illuminated royal transcripts and a 13th century pilgrimage route map as part of new show

They may have been called the "dark ages", but a new exhibition at the British Library will aim to show that there were medieval artists producing work that was as remarkably colourful as it was beautiful.

The library has announced details of a winter exhibition that will display, on a scale never seen before, some of the treasures from its collection of illuminated royal manuscripts.

The show's curator, Scot McKendrick, said on Wednesday that the 1,200 manuscripts it owned was "a remarkable inheritance". He added: "They are some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries."

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most luxurious of all artefacts from the middle ages, and ones produced for English kings and queens are among the most stunning.

McKendrick said the state of preservation was "truly remarkable, truly spectacular" and the vibrancy of the colours seem as fresh now as they would have been when they were first painted.

One level of the show will be a rare opportunity to see glorious art contained within books that are normally stored away. Another will shine light on to the evolving relationship between English monarchs and the Christian church from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor times.

One section will focus on a monarch who should be better known – Edward IV, who ruled between 1471-83 and who succeeded in reviving the fortunes and finances of England. He was a great collector of illuminated books and some of the best were from Bruges and the Low Countries. "They are large, very colourful and focus on subjects both secular and religious," said McKendrick.

A highlight of the exhibition will be a route map or itinerary for any 13th century pilgrim preparing to journey from London to Jerusalem. Drawn by Matthew Paris, a historian and an advisor to Henry III, it is almost a rough guide to getting there through Kent, France and Italy to the boat in Apulia, showing the must-see landmarks en route. It is all the more surprising since the only foreign country Paris is known to have ever visited is Norway.

There will also be a contemporary illustration of a 10th century king, a rather jolly-looking Edgar, celebrating the introduction of Benedictine rule at Winchester. Another exhibit, from 600 years later, will be Henry VIII's psalter, in which he has made intellectual annotations in Latin.

The details came as BBC4 also announced a three-part tie-in series called The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.

• Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination will be at the British Library from 11 November-13 March.


Mark Brown

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British Library buys Futurists' metal manifesto

The Tin Book, Italian Futurist art movement tome which called for destruction of libraries, bought for £83,000

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

20, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
British Library mislays 9,000 books

Text worth £20,000 and a luxury edition of Mein Kampf among missing volumes

Anil Dawar and Maev Kennedy

17, Mar, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
British Library stages UK's biggest comics exhibition

Superheroes feature but show focuses on the importance of British talent to what some perceive as a very American genre

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

01, May, 2014 @5:32 PM

Article image
Children's book illustrators celebrated at British Library

Paddington Bear, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, The Borrowers and The Iron Man among the works featured in Picture This exhibition

Maev Kennedy

03, Oct, 2013 @5:17 PM

Article image
British Library explores 20th century maps in new exhibition
A Soviet plan for Brighton, Tolkien’s Middle-earth and a Guardian spoof at Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

03, Nov, 2016 @7:22 PM

Article image
British Library awarded Grade I-listed building status
Structure once called ‘one of the ugliest buildings in the world’ in parliament and denounced by Prince Charles now ‘one of England’s finest modern buildings’

Maev Kennedy

31, Jul, 2015 @11:01 PM

Article image
British Library seeks £300,000 damages from book vandal

Iranian academic stole hundreds of items from libraries and major collections

Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

17, Jan, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
British Library explores changing attitudes to gay love in exhibition
Show includes original marks 50th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality

Nadia Khomami

01, Jun, 2017 @2:58 PM

Article image
Living by the pen: British Library explores history of writing
Angry telegram by playwright John Osborne and 2,000-year-old homework among exhibits

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

24, Apr, 2019 @12:23 PM

Article image
Spy report that criticised Marlowe for 'gay Christ' claim is revealed online
British Library releases ‘Baines note’ in which playwright Christopher Marlowe scandalously suggests Christian communion should be smoked in a pipe

Andrew Dickson

30, Mar, 2017 @11:01 PM