Medieval manuscripts blog

2 posts categorized "Gold exhibition"

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can pre-book your tickets online now.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

01 March 2022

GOLD tickets go on sale

Tickets are now on sale for our upcoming exhibition, Gold. Bringing together fifty spectacular items from around the world, this exhibition explores the use of gold in books and documents across cultures.

For thousands of years, people have found all kinds of ways to incorporate gold into books and documents: gold writing, inscriptions on gold surfaces, gold-illuminated pictures, gold book covers. So intrinsic was gold to the craft of luxury book production that manuscript decoration is known as ‘illumination’ from the use of gold to light up the pages. 

An illuminated manuscript page with figures against a gold background
Gold illumination in the Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

Gold has long been considered deeply meaningful. Its extraordinary appearance means that many religions around the world have found gold a fitting way to express the divine. As a rare luxury material, gold was adopted by rulers to convey political messages about their power and wealth.

Gold plates inscribed with Buddhist texts written in Pali language
Maunggan gold plates inscribed with Buddhist texts written in Pali language, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The exhibition will explore the different techniques employed by craftspeople to incorporate gold into books, including gold leaf (applying thin gold foil), shell gold (painting with powdered gold, which was traditionally kept in seashells), and gold-tooled leather bindings. 

An illuminated manuscript page with figures against a gold background
Gold illumination in the Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c.1320: Add MS 27210, f. 5r

It will showcase books and documents from twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. Exhibits range from 5th/6th-century inscribed gold plates from Myanmar to a 1920s art deco gold-tooled binding from France. There will be plenty of splendid medieval manuscripts on display, including the Harley Golden Gospels made in Germany around 800, which is written entirely in gold ink, and the Golden Haggadah made in Spain around 1320, renowned for its gold-illuminated scenes from Genesis and Exodus. 

The Latin text of the gospels written in gold ink
Gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Gold will be open at the British Library from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 Oct 2022. You can pre-book your tickets online now.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval 

Supported by: 

BullionVault name logo - 199w

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.