Illuminating the Renaissance: the triumph of Flemish manuscript painting in Europe

29 November 2003 - 22 February 2004

Curators

Thomas Kren, Curator of Manuscripts, J. Paul Getty Museum
Scot McKendrick, Head of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, The British Library
Cecilia Treves, Exhibitions curator, Royal Academy.

Co-organizers

The J. Paul Getty Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Museum.

From the exhibition website

Some of the most exquisite but least known works of the Renaissance are captured in the pages of hand painted books. This exhibition offers the first comprehensive overview of the greatest epoch in Flemish illumination, which enjoyed a final flourish during the Renaissance. In a unique collaboration between the Royal Academy, The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, the exhibition will bring together some 140 of the most beautiful and significant illuminated manuscripts, including books that have rarely been seen before and discoveries of recent years.

Illuminating the Renaissance focuses on the most important artists of the era working in Flanders between 1470 and 1560. Simon Marmion, Simon Bening and other, often anonymous painters, achieved astonishing innovations in the handling of colour, light, texture and space. Their naturalistic style, opulent use of colour and gold leaf, and the skilful illusionism of their decorative borders, transformed the illustrated page and raised the art of book painting to new levels of sophistication.

Varying in size from tiny prayer books, measuring only a few centimetres, to a monumental genealogy, the objects on display will show the extraordinary breadth and richness of manuscript illumination. Lavish designs bring to life a variety of devotional and secular books. These range from the imagined courtly world of historical tales and chivalric romance, to poetic landscapes and intimate and expressive religious scenes, all exquisitely realised with astounding detail. The exhibition will also offer an exceptional opportunity to see manuscript illumination within the broader context of painting on panel, with masterpieces by Renaissance artists such as Gerard David and Pieter Bruegel the Elder on display.

As the Flemish developed a reputation for creating the finest illuminated manuscripts, their work was collected by the most powerful and wealthy rulers of Europe, for whom a well-stocked library and the possession of the most luxurious prayer books were a mark of taste and wealth. The art of book illumination flourished as a result of discriminating patrons who included members of not only the Burgundian court, but also those of England, Germany, Spain and Portugal. They greatly admired Flemish illustrators, whose polished and refined style vividly captured the extravagant life at court. These precious treasures, whose sumptuous colours and scintillating detail were once the preserve of the wealthy elite, will now be seen in public.

Highlights include an unprecedented number of loans from The British Library, some of the finest manuscripts in existence from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and many treasures from British and European libraries, including Philip the Good’s copy of the Chroniques de Hainaut, with its celebrated frontispiece attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, from the Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels. Illuminating the Renaissance will present a rare opportunity to see some of the most magnificent manuscripts in existence.

Illuminating the Renaissance will be as revealing as the RA’s groundbreaking exhibition The painted page: Italian Renaissance book illumination, 1450-1550 (1994-95), which explored the achievements of Italian manuscript painters during the Renaissance.

Exhibition design

The exhibits will be presented in a sequence of dramatically lit showcases to display the manuscripts to their best advantage and to highlight their immaculate condition. Unlike paintings, manuscripts have generally been preserved from light. They have never needed to be retouched, varnished or cleaned, so the jewel-like colours and gold leaf used to illuminate these books are as intense as they were five centuries ago. Some of the books will be presented unbound so viewers will enjoy the rare opportunity of viewing complete picture cycles. Related paintings and drawings will also be displayed alongside.

Catalogue

Thomas Kren, Scot MacKendrick and Maryan Wynn Ainsworth, Illuminating the Renaissance: the triumph of Flemish manuscript painting in Europe, Los Angeles (J. Paul Getty Museum) and London (Royal Academy of Arts) 2003.
ISBN 0-89236-703-2 hardbound (J. Paul Getty Museum)
ISBN 0-89236-704-0 paperbound (J. Paul Getty Museum)
ISBN 1-903973-25-2 hardbound (Royal Academy of Arts)
ISBN 1-903973-28-7 paperbound (Royal Academy of Arts)

Other venue

Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum (17 June-7 September 2003).

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