Cambridge Illuminations - Ten Centuries of Book Production

By Catherine Rose | 25 July 2005
shows a page from an illuminated manuscript with a drawing of a man wearing a red tunic and armour - he has his sword drawn and children are entwined arond his lower left leg

John de Foxton, Liber cosmographiae, England 1385 - 1408. © The Master and Fellows Of Trinity College Cambridge.

Ten centuries of Medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, drawn from the collections of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University Library and many of the Cambridge colleges, goes on display in Cambridge on July 26.

The Cambridge Illuminations: Ten Centuries of Book Production in the Medieval West runs until December 11 2005 at The Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Library.

After the celebrated Burlington Fine Arts exhibition of 1908, The Cambridge Illuminations is the second largest display ever in England and features over 200 manuscripts and illuminated leaves – the cream of around 4000 manuscripts in the collections in Cambridge.

The sixth-century ‘Gospels of St Augustine’ - over which new Archbishops of Canterbury still swear their oaths - is the earliest manuscript on show in a display spanning right through to the sixteenth-century political invective against the Hapsburg kings of Spain.

shows a page of an illuminated manuscript with a religious picture to one side featuring a bishop or higher priest and three courtly ladies.

Apocalypse, England 1255-1260. © Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge.

It is the first time the Fitzwilliam and the University Library have joined together to create an exhibition and it gives the public an opportunity to see things that are normally locked away and only viewed by academics.

“Books need to be seen,” said Professor James Marrow, Princeton University and Honorary Keeper of the Northern European Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts, Fitzwilliam Museum. “They must not be hidden and treated as relics.”

Over the two venues you can view numerous books of hours, bestiaries, Bibles, encyclopaedias, scientific manuscripts and historical, mythological and geographical treatises as well as medieval documents from Cambridge University.

Works by some of the greatest medieval and Renaissance illuminators are on show, as well as commissions by the most celebrated patrons of learning and art, including the Kings of France and England, the Dukes of Burgundy and the Medici.

shows a double page of an illuminated manuscript with various protrait busts down the right edge and peasant ploughing towards the bottom.

The Macclesfield Psalter © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Universirty of Cambridge.

Some manuscripts are simple yet stunning, others lavishly ornate with rich reds, blues, gold and silver and created to painstaking scale. The displays range from miniature books smaller than a hand to enormous, weighty volumes. It’s difficult to focus on just one before another catches your eye and whisks you away.

A most exciting, last-minute addition to the exhibition is the Macclesfield Psalter, recently acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum after a major public campaign which secured its future in this country.

While disbound for conservation, a selection of individual leaves from the manuscript will be displayed in a gallery of its own. Produced around 1330, it is the most important manuscript to be rediscovered in living memory.

shows an ornate drawing of a nativity scene - in a medieval style

The Breviary of Margaret of York, Flanders, Ghent, 1475. © The Master and Fellows of St John's College.

It provides delightful glimpses of everyday life in medieval times, mixing humour, emotion and imagination and combining local traditions with the most innovative trends in European painting.

Accompanying the exhibition is an audio guide offering additional insights into the manuscripts and a virtual exhibition on the web that will offer a representative selection of The Cambridge Illuminations. Many activities are also being arranged during the exhibition including classes in calligraphy and illumination and concerts to tie in with the exhibition.

“Extraordinary”, “beautiful”, “fantastic”, “unbelievable”, “breathtaking” – these are just some of the comments uttered as visitors tried to take in what was before them. Not only is it free to visit, but it will possibly be the only chance to see such an impressive and exquisite collection together in one place.

To see the Cambridge Illuminations online, visit their website at

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