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Illuminated manuscripts light up medieval monarchs

LONDON (REUTERS).-Flecks of gold and vibrant swirls of royal blue grace the pages of illuminated royal manuscripts at the British Library in London, which will shortly go on show to the public.

The 150 manuscripts in the exhibition represent the most stunning pieces from the library's collection, the largest group of medieval manuscripts in Britain and one of the most important in the world.

"The manuscripts contain tens of thousands of the best medieval decorative and figurative paintings, which are as vivid as they were when they were first painted," said Scot McKendrick, head of history and classical studies at the British Library.

The richly-coloured exhibition will span the period between the eighth and 16th century, displaying images that have remained encased within the tomes for hundreds of years, protected from light and dirt.

The artefacts range from the depiction of the lineage of English kings across five metres of parchment scrolls to a dynamic illustration of Alexander the Great slaying dragons.

An image of King David shines out from the Westminster Psalter, created in 1200 and on loan from Westminster Abbey, plucking the strings of a flashing golden harp.

And a 13th century map by Matthew Paris, one of the foremost English historians of the Middle Ages, plots the pilgrimage route from London through France and Italy to Jerusalem, finishing with a map of the Holy Land featuring crusaders' castles, churches, and even a camel.

"When we selected the manuscripts to go on display, we tried to pick those which were visually very strong and had a very strong art element," Kathleen Doyle, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, said.

But the detailed illuminations, painstakingly created in candlelight, are not only about the artistry involved in their production.

As personal belongings that would be used on a daily basis, the manuscripts also reveal the world of medieval monarchs, from Anglo Saxon kings to Henry VIII, and shed light on their public and private lives.

Henry VIII's Psalter, commissioned and personalised for his own use, features illustrations of the infamous royal that demonstrate his desire to be identified with the biblical King David, traditionally regarded as the author of the Psalms.

"The book was made about 100 years after the invention of the printing press but the fact that Henry commissioned the book shows how handmade manuscripts were highly valued," Doyle said.

The opening illustration of the Psalter displays a pint-sized depiction of the then 49-year-old King, seated on a chair in his bedchamber with an open book.

But the most fascinating part of the worn, red velvet bound book is Henry's own notations in Latin, written in the margins of the pages.

"These manuscripts form a remarkable inheritance. They deepen our understanding of what it was to be a king in the Middle Ages, providing insights into their daily lives and development of kings as persons," McKendrick said.

Not to be overshadowed by their blue-blooded muses, the exhibition will also feature information about the men behind the manuscripts.

"One part of the exhibition will focus on how manuscripts were made and how this changed over time," McKendrick added.

Far from the common perception that the manuscripts were crafted by monks, slaving over their masterpieces in candlelight, in many cases the men behind the manuscripts were artists who would travel around to find work, he said.

"These were artists who were right at the top of their game. We cannot be certain how many hours they worked to produce this minute detail, but the books you are looking at were made by the best," McKendrick said.

The exhibition, "Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination", will run from November 11 2011 - March 13 2012.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

© Thomson Reuters 2011. All rights reserved.

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Illuminated manuscripts light up medieval monarchs

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