Teaching spotlight: Art in Medieval Books

This semester, Dr Anne Kirkham has been teaching a Level 3 course on Art in Medieval Books.

The course introduced students to the glorious imagery on the pages of many medieval books in the West, from the first regular appearances of a ‘rectangular object with pages’ in the fifth century to the time when printed books with printed images became relatively commonplace in the sixteenth century. Students studied how the complex history of this period influenced the production of manuscripts and the art that they contain. The course also considered the effects of collecting and connoisseurship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the practices of conservation and curating in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Several classes were at John Rylands Library, where specific objects were studied at close-hand, and specialist staff, including the conservation and photographic teams, provided privileged insights into the work of a special collections library.

The final class of the semester this week was run as a ‘book fair’, where each student gave a presentation trying to sell a manuscript or early printed book from the Special Collections.

Anne Anderton (Special Collections Curator) also showed the class two examples of non-Western manuscripts by way of comparison with the Western manuscripts that were the focus of the course.

We looked at the beautiful Persian MS 6 and Turkish MS 3 and discussed some of the similarities and differences between these manuscript traditions, and the histories of their being collected and preserved.

Finally, the class was treated to a visit to the stores, where we learned about the ways in which manuscripts are organised, kept secure, and in controlled climate conditions.

We are privileged to have access to the Special Collections at the John Rylands Library, and to benefit from the expertise of Library staff in teaching the course.

Thank you to the library staff that contributed to the course: Anne Anderton, Jane Gallagher, Charlotte Hoare, Karen Jacques and Julianne Simpson (curatorial); Gwen Riley Jones and Tony Richards (imaging); and Laura Caradonna, Elisabeth Carr and Jim Duff (conservation).

Student responses

“Over the course of the Art in Medieval Manuscripts class, we had so many exciting opportunities to see rare and unique books from the Rylands collection up close. We were also able to see the conservation room, the stores and the photography room and were afforded the chance to ask questions and see first hand the amazing work that goes on ‘behind the scenes’, so to speak. The skills we learnt on this course were invaluable and I will carry them forward both within and outside of my degree.” 

Stephanie Light

“Visiting the John Rylands for our classes every week has been incredibly rewarding and pleasurable. Studying the original illuminated manuscripts is so important, as even the most sophisticated imaging techniques can not replace the experience of viewing intense pigments and burnished gold in person. Our understanding of the objects was particularly enriched by the expertise of the staff at the Rylands library. Seeing how their knowledge is put into practice within the institution was fascinating, and showed us how important our studies could be for conserving our shared heritage in the future.”

Marnie Parker

Where to see more

The fantastic work of the Rylands photographers, metadata team, and specialist cataloguers can be seen in the digital collections.

High resolution images of many manuscripts and printed books (as well as other types of object) can be viewed in the library’s longstanding digital platform, LUNA. See, for example, nine of the illustrations from French MS 5, that was among the items presented in the class.

The University has recently launched a new digital platform, Manchester Digital Collections, which supports detailed metadata, and enables University academics and library staff to present research content alongside high resolution images. Among the collections already available are 49 of the Latin manuscripts, expertly catalogued by Dr Joanne Edge. See, for example, another of the items presented in the class, Latin MS 21.

The banner image is The Annunciation, from Latin MS 21. (c) The University of Manchester.

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