Colour – The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts

Visit to Fitzwilliam Museum


A display in two darkened rooms of 150 illuminated manuscripts from prayer books, an alchemical scroll, the Macclesfield Psalter, and the ABC of a 5 year old child.  The images have been sheltered in cherished volumes from medieval and renaissance times, while panel and wall paintings have often been destroyed.

The exhibits on show range from the 6th to the 16th century, and include Byzantine, Armenian, Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts from all over Europe and the Middle East.

The technologies used to produce these beautiful miniature paintings, and the meanings and values ascribed to the paintings were explained in the exhibition.  I picked up a magnifying glass from a table by the entrance to the exhibition.

To view these finely detailed, postcard sized paintings, I had to position myself just inches from them.  The glass and my proximity revealed wonders I’d never expected – I felt as if I had crossed into the paintings, that I had crossed into another world, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, or Harry Potter on Platform 9 3/4.

The detail and colours in these paintings are exquisite, but more than that, they were made in an imaginative, expressive way.  Depending on the subject, colours were used to express moods such as melancholy, grief, joy etc.  Colours – often pinks juxtaposed with greens – were used inventively to describe atmosphere, such as the strange eerie light of dawn.  Colours – azurites and deep vermillions – were used to describe intricate folds of garments, with subtle gradations of dark to light tones. Varieties of gold abounded – gold leaf punched with a stylus, or powdered gold bestowing a textured gleam.

The subjects ranged from religious scenes, soft and sinuous compositions painted with moving realism; to depictions of the science and the wondrous discoveries of the day; to fantastical inventions – alchemists’ scrolls of dragons and amphibious men.  All were painted with feeling, engaging my mind through the intense visual stimulation, and stirring up my emotions.

This intricate, patient, disciplined art is a far cry from what we’re accustomed to think of as modern art today.  Viewing the illuminations, i did come to see that detailed, skilful, patient work and creative, imaginative outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive.  I looked at the work of Mark Fairnington in Part 1 of my course, and when I’m back at home I’m going to try to find some more examples of contemporary practise which combines fine, painstaking detail on a small scale, with a creative, imaginative interpretation of subject.



Fitzwilliam digital resource:


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