The more observant of my readers may have noticed me saying more than once that I find blogging more interesting and enjoyable than almost anything on TV. I’m glad now that I used that qualifying ‘almost’, because for an hour last Monday (and the previous one) only the direst emergency could have dragged me away from the TV screen.
It was by complete chance that particular Monday evening that I switched on the TV to find that BBC4 was about to start a 3-part series on one of my longest-standing passions: mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The series is called Illuminations: the Private Lives of Mediaeval Kings and has been made to link in with a new exhibition of royal manuscripts currently being shown at the British Library in
Each was an hour of pure bliss, as I watched the art historian Dr Janina Ramirez explore the world in which these treasures were made and the reasons for their making. The programmes are so good that we have recorded them for future viewing and I know I will return to them more than once.
|King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou|
As I watched the first programme I tried to recall when my love of mediaeval and Renaissance architecture, art and, in particular, manuscript illumination began, but couldn't. It may have been sparked by the mediaeval German literature I studied as part of my degree course back in the mid-1960s. If so, it lay dormant for the next few years until I qualified as a librarian and began work in a public library, where my immediate superior was an immensely knowledgeable collector of old and often rare books.
During our coffee breaks he would sometimes show me book auction catalogues, many of them illustrated with pages from the works on sale. It was in this way that I first learned about Books of Hours and began to read about them and the people for whom they had been made.
My own bookshelves tell me that by 1979 my interest had grown to such an extent that my mother gave me a beautifully-illustrated book on the subject as my Christmas present. I spent many hours reading this book and poring over the exquisite detail of the wonderful illuminations, with their jewel-like colours, lavish use of gold-leaf and fascinating glimpses into a world so distant and different from our own.
One of the manuscripts examined in the book is the world-famous and immensely richly-decorated Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. I was so bewitched by the beauty and variety of these illuminations that at Christmas 1985 DH gave me a book about this one unique Book of Hours. The Très Riches Heures is deservedly famous for its wealth of exquisite sacred images, but above all for its extraordinary calendar of the months.
This portrays in loving detail the seasonal life of the countryside of the Berry region and the Duke’s court, from feasting at Christmas to haymaking in June and back again to winter, many of the images enhanced by the amazingly detailed depictions of castles and towns in the background.
|February - life in winter|
|September - the grape harvest|
The book DH gave me consists almost entirely of illustrations, with only the minimum of explanatory text. Next to it on my shelves is another volume, again a gift, this time a gesture of thanks and farewell from my former library colleague and friend, who retired in 1987. It is another splendidly illustrated book on the Très Riches Heures, but this time complete with a scholarly introduction and a much fuller commentary on the wealth of illustrations.
Taking these books off the shelves and looking at them makes me realise how much our interests and passions are bound up with who we are and the relationships that have formed us. Here are three gifts linked to a lasting interest in my life. Three gifts from different people, each of whom knew how much the gift would mean to me, each of whom has contributed, to a greater or lesser extent, to making me the person I am.
These three books may stay on my shelves undisturbed for long periods as new interests come to the fore, but once opened again they still transport me instantly into a different world, while at the same providing a tangible link to some of the most important people in my life. Sadly two of the givers are long dead, but the first glimpse of their handwriting on the fly-leaf of their gift makes them live again in the little world of my memory.
The world in miniature…
Most images via Wikipedia, with thanks