Professor Margaret Manion, the renowned, Melbourne-based international scholar of the art of the medieval manuscript joined us last Thursday evening and gave a wonderfully knowledgeable and entertaining lecture about the remarkable group of medieval manuscripts in Handwritten.
Professor Manion spoke very interestingly about the comparisons that could be drawn between the manuscripts in Handwritten and those in a variety of Australian collections, including the State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne. While Australia is not blessed with a great number of significant medieval manuscripts (they are mainly held in Melbourne) there were enough for Professor Manion to illuminate for us in her engaging illustrated talk.
What struck me was how strong the design sense was in even the smallest manuscript in the Handwritten collection. Even though I had handled these manuscripts in Berlin I had not seen the individual pages from the Staatsbibliothek’s items blown up larger than catalogue page size, so her lecture was a revelation at this level alone. A tiny prayer book or Book of Hours from Northern France or Flanders from the mid 15th century is quite difficult to view in the exhibition because of its size. It is only 9 centimetres tall and clearly meant to be held in one’s hands and studied closely! When seen blown up to the size of the large screen in our theatre it was impressive and the minuscule details on the page were quite amazing when seen on such an enhanced scale.
The artists who conceived these works had a remarkable ability to elaborate the page and the words of the bible or of prayers and to create almost unbelievable detail and richness – all unattributed. The anonymity of these artists, even the enormous skill of the hand behind the Von Firmian Book of Hours is testament to their selfless method of production and the glorification of the Christian texts.
Seeing key images from Handwritten alongside manuscripts held in our region was a special treat. Personally, to see the Boethius De Musica manuscript from the National Library of New Zealand and the Glorious Antiphonal from the State Library of South Australia again, when they were last here in Treasures from the world’s great libraries exhibition ten years ago, was a highlight of the lecture. It also points to the generosity of Australian libraries (not to mention the Staatsbibliothek) in lending such important items for exhibitions.
When Professor Manion visited the Library’s Treasures Gallery, Susannah, one of the exhibition curators, and I had the opportunity to show her our beautiful Flemish Book of Hours c.1450 from the Clifford Collection which of course she knows well – it is exhibited in the NLA to Z section under V is for Vellum. Susannah and I shared a very interesting discussion about vellum with Professor Manion and she related how a colleague of hers, a conservator, is so skilled that not only can she identify what animal the vellum comes from but what part of the animal and how many different animals might have contributed to one illuminated manuscript volume. Look for the vellum in the Paris Bible in Handwritten which is exquisitely fine and even today, almost 800 years later, with all the advances in technology people cannot produce vellum as fine!
It is wonderful that exhibitions like Handwritten or Treasures provide the very valuable opportunity to share knowledge about some of the key items in our distributed library and archival collections.
Professor Manion’s excellent lecture is now available from the Library’s podcast page.