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Department Collection


The Peterborough Psalterr,
c.1220, MS 12, fol. 12v

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

In quality and importance, the Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts is unrivalled in public museums outside the Vatican. It spans the period from the ninth to the fifteenth century and represents all major schools of European illumination. The vast majority of medieval painting was created on the pages of illuminated manuscripts. Less exposed to the elements and historic upheavals than the monumental arts, and protected between solid covers, manuscripts preserve their original pigments fresh and largely untainted by later treatment. The richest source of information on all aspects of contemporary life, they double as portable galleries of paintings. They remain the most representative of all surviving media of medieval and early Renaissance art. Viscount Fitzwilliam’s manuscripts laid the foundations on which the collection continues to grow. Currently, the Museum houses the Cambridge Illuminations research project focusing on all Western illuminated manuscripts in the Museum and the Colleges of Cambridge.


The Peterborough Psalter
Peterborough, before 1222

Indispensable as a scholarly, liturgical, and devotional text, the medieval Psalter was the most frequently and lavishly illustrated book of the Bible. With its suave figures, delicately incised gold patterns, and painterly modelling of draperies and faces, this volume preserves the work of the finest English illuminator of the early thirteenth century. Like many of his contemporaries, he remains anonymous, but the manuscript’s liturgical texts point to the Benedictine Abbey of Peterborough and the patronage of Abbot Robert de Lindesey (1214-1222). Despite contemporary fashion among collectors for late medieval and Renaissance French or Italian manuscripts, Viscount Fitzwilliam recognized the exceptional quality of this masterpiece of English Gothic painting.
Founder’s Bequest, 1816
MS 12

Louis XI’s presentation copy of the Life of Charlemagne
Florence, 1461

When Viscount Fitzwilliam acquired this manuscript in 1814, he was attracted by its elegant Renaissance style of decoration, fashionable among collectors at the time. As an enthusiast for everything French, he would have been particularly interested in the French royal arms and the dedication, which named Louis XI of France (1423-1483). On the 2nd of January 1462 the Florentine ambassadors presented the newly-crowned Louis with a deluxe copy of the Life of Charlemagne. Few texts could have evoked the humanistic ideal for the revival of Antiquity more successfully, while also providing the French king with a most flattering gift, the biography of his glorious ancestor. The author, Donato Acciaiuoli (1428-1478), was the renowned Aristotelian scholar who served as Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ambassador to Paris in 1461. Louis XI’s copy was produced by Vespasiano da Bistici (c.1422-1498), the ‘prince of booksellers’ who enjoyed the patronage of the Medici. Vespasiano entrusted the copying of the manuscript to Messer Piero di Benedetto Strozzi (1416-c.1492), whom he called the finest scribe of his time, and the decoration to Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (act.1452 - d.1484), the favourite illuminator of the Medici. There can be no doubt that Lorenzo had commissioned a royal gift of outstanding quality and diplomatic importance.
Bequeathed by Viscount Fitzwilliam, 1816.
MS 180

The Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France – a treasure secured for Cambridge

This exceptionally refined manuscript, with its rich pictorial cycle, elegant style, luxurious colour scheme, and exquisite technique is a lasting tribute to the artists, scribes and patrons who transformed thirteenth-century Paris into the leading centre of manuscript production. It was the prayer book of Isabelle (1225-1270), the devout sister of Louis IX of France (1226-1270) who built the Ste Chapelle to house his Crusading relics. The manuscript’s later ownership is as distinguished as its original patronage. It belonged to Charles V of France (1374-1380) and to some of the most discerning collectors of the 19th century. On 24 February 1854 John Ruskin wrote in his dairy: ‘I got the greatest treasure I have yet obtained in my life’. Yet, this did not stop him from cutting out leaves and using them as teaching tools or gifts. By 1904 when Henry Yates Thompson purchased the book, his adviser, Sydney Cockerell, had recovered the dispersed leaves through a campaign that took four years, challenged his patience and diplomacy to the full, and culminated in a petition to the High Court of Justice. When Yates Thompson decided to sell his collection in 1918, it was Cockerell again, this time as Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, that launched a new campaign. Declining donations offered by people who had no relationship with Cambridge and appealing to local pride, he secured one of the most splendid medieval illuminated manuscripts for Cambridge and devoted it to the memory of those who had died in the Great War.
Acquired through subscription from 65
members of Cambridge University in 1919.
MS 300

The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours

Facsimile edition

One of the Fitzwilliam Museum's finest Books of Hours, MS 1058-1975, which was produced in Flanders in the early sixteenth century, has just appeared in a facsimile edition, limited to 1,180 copies, complete with a commentary volume and published by The Folio Society.

Made around 1510 probably in Bruges, the Fitzwilliam Book of Hours represents the last and most flamboyant period of manuscript production. By the early sixteenth century, the Book of Hours had become the quintessential text for private devotion, a corner stone of the European book trade, and the manuscript type that showcased the final, most exuberant phase of medieval and Renaissance illumination. While these developments appear in Books of Hours made throughout Europe during the fifteenth century, their major impact around 1500 is most readily observed in Flanders, where this volume was made. Catering for an international and socially expanding clientele, Flemish scribes, artists and booksellers were the leading suppliers of Books of Hours both for local use and export. They produced vast numbers of copies for the book trade as well as highly personalized manuscripts of exceptional refinement and artistic virtuosity for the most discerning art patrons across Europe.

The Fitzwilliam Book of Hours exemplifies all of these tendencies. It combines artistic strategies typical of manuscripts made for the open market with unique features reserved for special commissions. It embodies long-established traditions of medieval manuscript production, recent developments that characterized Flemish illumination from the 1470s onwards, and the achievements of the most distinguished and innovative artists of the Northern Renaissance.

Books of Hours were made and survive in far greater numbers than any other type of medieval and Renaissance manuscript, including the Bible. They are still the most common and visually attractive items found in auction rooms today, just as they were during the nineteenth-century revival of interest in illuminated manuscripts. As the Napoleonic campaigns in Italy and the secularisation of religious houses across Europe put the hidden treasures of religious and princely libraries onto the market, art dealers and collectors came to realize that manuscripts preserved between their covers examples of medieval painting in far greater quantity and superior condition than could be found in any other artistic medium. Among the most coveted acquisitions, whether complete or reduced to their excised miniatures, were the splendid Books of Hours from the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They supplied luxurious and emotive paintings, which harmonised with nineteenth-century tastes and sentiments. Through the generosity of distinguished private collectors and the entrepreneurial spirit of its scholarly directors, the Fitzwilliam Museum has amassed one of the largest and finest collections of Books of Hours in existence. Over 250 examples, including complete volumes and single miniatures dating from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, represent the major centres of manuscript production in England, France, Italy, and the Low Countries, and the tastes of the foremost art patrons in Europe.

Although the identity of the Fitzwilliam Hours’ original owner remains a matter of speculation, we can be fairly certain that he was a high-ranking ecclesiastic associated with Franche-Comté, more specifically Besançon, and probably with its Burgundian-Habsburg rulers as well. His wealth, taste for sumptuous display, interest in biblical typology and pietistic preferences are all reflected in the selection and grouping of texts and images in the Fitzwilliam Hours.

The illumination was the work of four main artists. Two of them, the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book (act. c.1465–c.1515) and the Master of James IV of Scotland (act. 1487–1526), were among the most distinguished and influential Flemish illuminators active around 1500. Together with the elusive Master of St Michael, an equally inventive artist whose work outside this manuscript remains to be identified, they made impressive guest appearances. The rest of the manuscript was illuminated by the Painter of Additional 15677. He was also the manuscript’s designer and the manager of this ambitious collaborative project.

Emulating the masterpieces of Flemish painters and illuminators of the previous two generations, the artists of the Fitzwilliam Hours demonstrated the technical expertise and visual exuberance for which their works were so highly prized by contemporaries. The receding aerial perspective and the precocious topographical detail impart captivating immediacy to the atmospheric landscapes. The use of consistent light source and three-dimensional modelling makes the figures stand before the viewer as if in real space and time. The individualised physiognomies, depicted with the meticulous objectivity of a surgical analysis, are masterpieces of realistic portraiture and emotional complexity. Fur-lined mantles, luxurious brocade robes and jewel-encrusted headdresses are handled with sophistication that creates a tangible feel for different materials, surfaces, shapes and textures. The reflective qualities of metal and glass are minutely observed. And so are the numerous border flowers that cast trompe l’oeil shadows across the surface of the page and lure butterflies and snails with their sweet aroma.

The strive for verisimilitude in the representation of objects, individuals and nature was an essential part of the visual games in which artists enticed their viewers. One playful stratagem was the conjuring up of pictorial ambiguities by integrating the main image, the text and the border into a unified space or by projecting them into different, but semantically linked dimensions. It was the viewer’s acute sense for illusionistic devices, recognition of their semantics and willing immersion in the act of prayer nurtured by them that could resolve the tension between the material work of art and its spiritual dimensions, between realistic depiction and real presence.

The play between realism and illusionism was certainly intended to delight and fascinate by encouraging the close observation of detail and manipulating the spectator’s perceptions of tangible objects. But there was more to this visual game than a mere indulgence in flamboyant experiments with techniques and bravura performances of artistic virtuosity. The intricate simulations of the visible world anchored the onlookers’ attention to the page and stimulated their intellectual curiosity as well as their senses. Whether the images receded into an imaginary pictorial depth, harked back to biblical authority and ancient history, or reached forward into the onlooker’s space and time, they awakened a rich spectrum of aesthetic, cognitive and spiritual responses. The continuous and repeated examination of the text and adjacent images triggered a chain of associations, memories, sensations and emotions. Ultimately, it is the complexity of these responses that the artists of the Fitzwilliam Hours endeavoured to provoke, the owner sought to experience, and the modern-day reader-viewer may strive to rediscover.