Everything is illuminated

Thomas Kren puts ancient manuscripts in a new light

ANCIENT HISTORY<br>Two selections from Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts, (above and left).

Two selections from Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts, (above and left).

Thomas Kren first fell in love with illuminated manuscripts while he was studying Northern Renaissance art as an undergraduate in Cleveland, Ohio. His professor gave a couple of lectures on illuminated manuscripts as background for the study of painting.

If you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering what an illuminated manuscript is. They are individually handwritten texts—ranging from a half-inch tall or smaller, to 20 to 24 inches tall, as in the case of choir books designed for a half-dozen people to sing from at the same time—from the Middle Ages and Renaissance (the printing press eventually made them obsolete). These manuscripts were often religious in nature and written on parchment. They were “illuminated"—or lavishly and meticulously hand-illustrated in bright colors, and gold or silver—by the great painters of the time. Illuminated manuscripts were highly prized, and commissioned by European rulers and aristocrats.

Kren went on to write a master’s thesis on the Gotha Missal—a stunningly decorated, bound vellum prayer book from about 1375. It was illuminated by Jean Bondol, one of the great 14th-century European illuminators, and is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“It was always the great princes who were the patrons of manuscript illumination,” said Kren, who is the curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the author of a number of books on the topic. “Manuscript illumination was a kind of court art form.”

He spoke about two of the illuminators whose work he’ll be looking at in his upcoming talk at Chico State—15th-century Italian painter and illuminator Giovanni di Paolo and Jean Fouquet. The latter was court painter for Charles VII and Louis XI of France, and as Kren put it: “one of the great painters of his day.” Many of Fouquet’s paintings were destroyed during the French Revolution; however, many of his illuminated manuscripts survived.

Thomas Kren will give a talk, followed by a Q&A.

Most of the great collections are in Europe, Kren pointed out, in libraries (as opposed to museums) where primarily only students and scholars of manuscripts have access to them. The Getty Museum is fortunate to have a sizable (and growing) collection, begun in 1983, available for public viewing.

Kren is keen to introduce them to as wide an audience as possible. A large part of the Getty’s, and Kren’s, mission is to “be on the forefront of teaching the general public” about illuminated manuscripts. The museum’s Web site features user-friendly information on and photographs of illuminated manuscripts geared for the use of primary- and secondary-school teachers.

One of Kren’s favorite illuminated manuscripts is a “model book” of calligraphy—designed to teach handwriting to a growing number of people in the 16th century who were learning to write, and illuminated by Flemish painter Georg Hoefnagel for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.

“The court scribe [who wrote the book] used his most beautiful and elegant script,” Kren reflected. “Hoefnagel was the illuminator, and he added images of flowers and plants on every page. Interestingly, Rudolf had an elaborate zoo and an exotic garden, and this shows up in the book, which is pure decoration but has scientific interest as well.”

Kren praised the intimacy of sitting at his desk, turning the pages ("carefully"!) of the beautiful, fragile books, or codices, and hopes to share his joy of illuminated manuscripts with the folks of Chico.

While Getty Museum-goers have to content themselves with viewing a single manuscript one page at a time under glass, those attending the Chico State lecture and slide show will have the benefit of viewing many images from the well-known Getty collection as well as from other manuscript collections around the world. “People will see beautiful things of a sort they’ve never seen before.”