THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

11 posts from March 2019

05 March 2019

The Renaissance Nude

We are delighted that two British Library manuscripts are featured in the new exhibition at the Royal Academy entitled The Renaissance Nude, which is open from 3 March to 2 June 2019. As Thomas Kren, one of the exhibition's curators has commented, 'The British Library’s splendid loans make clear the way beloved themes from Greek and Roman mythology were kept alive during the Middle Ages, enjoying renewed interest in northern Europe in the 15th century. Such sumptuous illuminated manuscripts in a newly naturalistic style brought the often sensual narratives vividly to life.'

The exhibition has transferred from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and examines the renewed interest in ancient Greek and Roman art that brought the human body to the forefront of artistic innovation in the 15th and 16th centuries. The exhibition features paintings and drawings, sculpture, and bronze statuettes with various approaches to illusionistic depictions of the nude.

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Diana bathing, in the Épître Othéa a Hector: Harley MS 4431, f. 126r

The first manuscript features an image of Diana bathing, illustrating one of the most well-known of late medieval texts, the Épître Othéa a Hector (letter from Othéa to Hector). This was the first major work of Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1430), in which Othéa, the goddess of wisdom, tells 100 moralising stories illustrating vice and virtue to instruct the young Hector of Troy.    

Christine is widely regarded as one of Europe’s earliest female professional authors. She was born in Venice in 1365, but moved to Paris as a young child when her father was appointed the royal astrologer and alchemist to King Charles V (1364–1380). Christine’s writing career began at the age of 24, after her husband died suddenly, and she was faced with the necessity of providing for herself and her small children.

The British Library copy was completed under Christine’s direct supervision, and was dedicated to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, who married King Charles VI (1380-1422) in 1385.  The manuscript is now in two volumes and is fully digitised. We have previously blogged about it here.

Our other spectacular manuscript on display in The Renaissance Nude is a copy of the Roman de la Rose, an allegorical poem that survives in more than 100 illuminated copies. The British Library copy is one of the finest.  It is also been digitised in full, and it has been discussed in our blogposts Sex and death in the Roman de la rose and Everything's coming up Roman de la roses.  

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Zeuxis in the Roman de la rose: Harley MS 4425, f. 142r

The page exhibited at the Royal Academy illustrates the story of the painter Zeuxis. He employed five women to model for his nude depiction of Helen of Troy, combining the best features of each. 

Both manuscripts come from the Harley collection, formed in two generations by the 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford, Robert Harley (1661–1724), and his son, Edward Harley (1689–1741). You can find out more about the origins of the British Library’s collections here.

The Renaissance Nude is on show at the Royal Academy in London until 2 June 2019.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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03 March 2019

Guess the manuscript 127

Regular readers of this Blog since the early 14th century will know that we periodically run a mind-bending quiz, known over the world as Guess the Manuscriptâ„¢. We are delighted to bring you instalment 127 of this popular competition (actually, we've forgotten how many now, but it doesn't really matter).

Your challenge is to hunt down and identify this page from a medieval manuscript. The only clue? It can be found somewhere on the British Library's Medieval England and France, 700–1200 webpages. Simples.

Guess

One lucky winner will win a week's holiday to Basingstoke (accommodation, travel and living expenses not included), and an unlucky runner-up will win two weeks in Basingstoke (we are only kidding). Please send your guesses to @BLMedieval or via the comments button below.

 

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02 March 2019

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a huge thank you

When the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition finally closed last week, over 108,000 people had visited it. We would like to thank again the 25 lenders who loaned over half of the manuscripts and other objects. We are very grateful for the generosity of all the institutions that loaned so many great treasures. They were displayed alongside 80 books and documents from the British Library, ranging from Beowulf and the St Cuthbert Gospel to the oldest surviving charter from England. Half of the Library’s own exhibits – 40 books and documents – came from the remarkable collection of Sir Robert Cotton, recently inscribed on the Memory of the World register.

A photograph of Codex Amiatinus, an enormous medieval bible, in its display case in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition
Codex Amiatinus, loaned by the Biblioteca Laurenziana Medicea in Florence, returned to England for the first time in over 1,300 years (image credit Tony Antoniou)
Dr Claire Breay with the Lindisfarne Gospels
The Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton MS Nero D IV) was one of the many manuscripts on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

 

An Anglo-Saxon sculpture sitting on a plinth
Spong Man was loaned to the exhibition by Norfolk Museums Service (image credit Tony Antoniou)

 

Thank you too to all the donors whose support enabled us to bring together so many loans, to all the members of the advisory group who guided the development of the exhibition and related programmes, and to everyone who contributed to the exhibition catalogue and our sold-out ‘Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ conference in December. A selection of papers from the conference will be published next year. And very many thanks to all the members of the Medieval Manuscripts Section and all the other teams across the Library who supported the delivery of the exhibition, whether in visible or unseen ways.

An image of the exhibition catalogue for Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, showing an illuminated page from a medieval manuscript
The exhibition catalogue, edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story, features every item on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

 

A photograph of a medieval manuscript being installed in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition
Installing Wynflaed's will (Cotton Ch VIII 38): many teams across the Library were involved in preparing and supporting the exhibition

 

Although the exhibition has closed, and the exhibits have been returned to the lenders and the British Library’s shelves, our Anglo-Saxons website remains online, updated last week with new articles, collection items and videos from the exhibition. And, as regular readers of this Blog will be well aware, to support future research on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, almost all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts have been fully digitised through a programme funded in memory of Mel Seiden and by The Polonsky Foundation England and France 700–1200 Project.

A page from a medieval manuscript with an illustration and musical notation
The Caligula Troper was among the British Library's Anglo-Saxon manuscripts digitised in advance of the exhibition: Cotton MS Caligula A XIV, f. 20v

 

A photograph of a medieval manuscript with a treasure binding in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition
The Judith of Flanders Gospels, with its magnificent treasure binding, was kindly loaned to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms by the Morgan Museum and Library, New York (image credit Tony Antoniou)

 

And finally, to everyone who came to the sold-out programme of public talks and to the exhibition itself, thank you very much.

 

Claire Breay

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