Today we spend more time looking at screens than sleeping. Our vision has become fast paced and digital, our attention caught by a hundred flashing screens a day. The question the Fitzwilliam is asking is where this leaves static art? The focus here is on manuscripts, the previous generation who spent their whole lives writing by hand, thumbing through pages and looking at books were the last age of bibliophiles and valued and collected manuscripts. Subsequent generations have never equalled their fascination with paper, we have been spoilt by screens. This is why the Fitzwilliam’s exhibition, Colour: the Art and Science of Medieval Manuscripts is entirely necessary right now.
In work from this period we can look, and keep on looking and after half an hour and continue to see fresh detail becoming apparent. Medieval work teaches us to look and engage with patient eyes, it is really what Art should do.
Perhaps this is why the oldest works of art have proved the most resonant to be exhibited this season. The success of Frieze masters eclipsed the contemporary show. Opus Anglicanum, English Medieval Embroidery is rivalling the Rebels and Records at the V&A. And Colour at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge is being nationally recognised as one of the great shows of 2016, an Arcadian vision of what a medieval exhibition might be.
Colour: The Art and Science of Medieval Manuscripts is an institution defining exhibition. Manuscripts were what the Fitzwilliam Museum was created for 200 years ago. The exhibition today was seven years in the making to mark the anniversary. It comes out of a world centre for the study of manuscript painting with two research programs, Miniare and Cambridge Illumination. We can feel the urgency of recent discoveries in the exhibition, the new ideas and knowledge about these very old works is stimulating.
Walking through heavy doors into the dim purple room the first thing we encounter is a Pontifical, 1310, from the Fitzwilliam’s collection. The bottom of a letter H at the start of a hymn, trails off and grows into a vine with red, white and blue leaves, a gold leaf marks the end of each branch. Standing on this creeper a rabbit waves a twig at a snail with legs. On a later page the rabbit appears again riding on the back of a man with two walking sticks, higher up in the margin a purple bird is perched on a human headed dragon. And we have followed the rabbit into a brilliantly doodled wonderland with elegant harmonies and rhythmically sequenced chromatic contrasts.
‘Colours represented man’s place in society and the universe’ reads the first block of text on the exhibition wall. Colours had symbolic and economic value, some colour combinations were global others individual taste, some endure to the modern period others swirl in and out of fashion with trade and technology. There are geographical variations, and it is a credit to the exhibition that as it progresses you get a buzz of satisfaction at accurately identifying regional styles - the emotion in Netherlandish works and serene faces of the French with more tone and less line, East Anglian peculiarities and London’s fashionable sculptural modelling.
The Fitzwilliam re-introduces the viewer to an art form with as rich a heritage as oil painting that is largely overlooked in galleries around the world. Some images are deeply expressive: their intensity magnified by the microscopic scale. In the Marlay fragment, an elegant Christ with long spindly fingers raises one hand in blessing, the other holds the orb of the world. The work is executed with the technical and material economy of a gothic cathedral: the refined face has a cool tonality in which a trace of ultramarine is mixed – over this a thin barely perceptible glaze of organic pink has been applied to create a subtle glow condensing around the eyes and cheeks. The facial features are created with a hairs breadth of carbon black, strokes of vermillion enliven the lips and pure lapis lazuli Christ’s gaze. The work exemplifies the high point in Parisian illumination 750 years ago it makes you shiver.
The contemporary penchant for the bizarre and grotesque could find no better expression than an illustrated account of the Apocalypse from Lamberth Palace. We learn that for a time in the 1260’s England produced some of the most spectacular and outlandish manuscripts to be seen. The work is delineated in a red-brown made from the Asian insects of the Coccoidea family, the pigments Medieval name was ‘dragons blood’. The book is open at the story of Theofilus who sold his soul to the devil and appealed to the Virgin for help. An agile, boyish Mary is in a tug of war for the document with the devil astride a pile of delicate pale green gremlins stretched out on top of each other. Their mad eyes under bushy eyebrows gleam with lapis lazuli. Sixteen blue gnarly claws emerge under tousled fur and a colossal blue mouth reveals eight pointed teeth, fiery tongue lolling in anticipation. From the ear of this mouth crawls a worm with a green dog face and more teeth. It’s an intense and intricately daft scene that would awe anybody. At the very top the smallest furriest demon sits on the nose of the biggest monster and looks despondent with his hand on his hip, blowing flames from a hunting horn. It was made for Elanor De Quincy the Countess of Winchester and has 78 images including cosmic battles between the forces of good and evil, conflict between Christ and Antichrist, the destruction of the world and creation of a new heaven.
These crisp and curious pictures are startling in their originality. Much of their impact comes from the unexpectedly bright bizarre colour combinations. Despite the lack of synthetic dyes it turns out that the Middle Ages were not a time of faded earthy tones, the taupe of a patched tapestry. Preserved in thick books, unspoiled colour is the unique forte of manuscripts and an intelligent choice of focus on the part of the curator.
The exhibition has a natural appeal; human’s magpie like fascination with bright and colourful things is universal, yet our perception is strikingly socially variable – it is at this cultural crossroads that the curation of the exhibition sits. We are familiar with the development of language but less conscious that the lexicon of Chaucer (or of Shakespeare) came with its own distinct perception of pigment. The exhibition reveals that while today we understand colour as an effect of light – before Newtown colour was ‘integral to the fabric of the universe’ understood as another property of the material world. Perception of colour was sensitive the texture, luminosity and intensity as much as the hue. The text of the exhibition respects this and identifies colours in manuscripts by their material rather than pigment: ‘cobalt blue’ and ‘charcoal black’. Slowly the viewer is slipped into this paradigm of colour within a context.
The curation is homogenous and simple, minimal effort is required to present the images well; the whole point of these illustrations in the margins is that they distract attention away from reading text, forming minute worlds in themselves. However technical challenges are posed by books: just one page can be displayed, and the pictures are tiny allowing only a couple of people to see them at a time. This may explain why manuscripts remain in the category of hidden gems rather than well-known cultural artefacts. The Exhibition resolves the problem by simply having a lot of works on show and so scattering visitors. The problem of the images inevitably hidden in the display of books is compensated for by numerous high quality photographs of the concealed pages published on their website.
Each work had a description reviewing it in terms of material, technique, content and wider social significance. The display is understated with no distracting objects, no flashes or beeps. Space is divided analytically between two rooms: the first focuses on material and technique, the second on subject and location. Fourteen sub-titles or ‘chapters’ within these subjects break the exhibition down into smaller themes, this rational treatment creates clarity, each work illustrates a point. We enter the second room with skills learnt from the first and look on new works feeling like a pro. We learn to enhance our looking.
The presentation of the scientific research methods is a little weak. A demonstration of the process of digital recreation to reveal what is under the loincloths of Adam and Eve (a later Victorian addition) is an entirely underwhelming peepshow. Carbon dating is described vaguely with greyscale photographs. Some of the physical machinery might have enlivened the description. But on the whole the triumph of the exhibition is its simplicity in promoting manuscripts as fascinating in their own right.
It is a successful exhibition because it kills clichés: the cliché that the Medieval Art is withered and crumbling is first to go – we encounter works with great emotion and manuscripts innovating and experimenting at the forefront of visual arts. It’s also a compelling exhibition for warning against the temptations of technological determinism, manuscripts may be a throw-back to the pre-printing press era, but they offer an aesthetic intensity which today’s flickering digital world struggles to match. Ultimately it is very hard to tear yourself away and impossible to avoid learning something.