As part of its 200th birthday celebrations, the Fitzwilliam is staging one of the largest exhibitions of medieval illuminated manuscripts for several years. Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscipts combines a fantastic display of medieval artworks with the findings of a major scientific research project, www.miniare.org. The research project uses non-invasive techniques to analyse the chemical structure of the artists’ materials, shedding light on the processes and equipment required by a medieval illuminator.
Most of the 122 exhibits are drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collections, but three important manuscripts are on loan from Trinity College Library, all of which are available to view complete online as part of the Wren Digital Library:
The Trinity Apocalypse (R.16.2) is the most lavishly decorated English manuscript of the Book of Revelation, possibly made for king Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence in the late 1250s. Bright colours are used to depict the heavenly Jerusalem.
Poems on the Praises of the Holy Cross by Hrabanus Maurus (B.16.3) is an extraordinary collection of poems written in grids of letters with superimposed patterns of crosses and other figures. Several of the poems are concerned with the significance of colours: the poem on display in the exhibition uses the colours hyacinth, purple, linen and scarlet to show Christ’s divinity, blood, chastity and love.
One of the manuscripts most central to the theme of the exhibition is John de Foxton’s Book of Cosmography (R.15.21), a manuscript written in York at the start of the fifiteenth century. The elaborate images throughout this book include nude portraits of the four elements, showing the effect of the humours on the colour of their skin: red for the Sanguine man, white for the Phlegmatic man, black for the Melancholic man and yellow for the Choleric man.
The crucial differences between the four temperaments in this book are shown with a complex combination of base colours with mixtures of up to seven different pigments for the upper layers of painting. Painstaking analysis of this manuscript has revealed the use of materials sourced from many different countries.
The exhibition will be on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum until Friday 30 December 2016, admission free. See the Colour events programme online.