The secularisation of Catholic Church property that swept Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century brought numerous medieval and Renaissance books from cathedral treasuries and monastic libraries into private hands.
From the mid-1820s, a market developed for miniatures, pages, initials and border decorations cut out of illuminated manuscripts, especially large volumes that had been used for daily worship and celebrations in church. While their text was outdated or no longer understood, their pictorial and decorative elements were increasingly recognised as of antiquarian interest and relevant to the history of painting.
From its foundation in 1852, the V&A acquired specimens of illumination, sometimes as artworks in their own right, but more often to serve as models and inspiration for British art workers. With over 2,000 manuscript cuttings, mainly purchased before 1900, the V&A now holds one of the largest collections of this kind in the world.
Featuring cuttings dating from the 12th to the 16th century and originating from Italy, the Netherlands, present-day Belgium, Germany and France, this display explores two key aspects: the 19th-century context in which these pieces were cut up, collected and even copied, and the types of books they came from and their original context of production.
The 19th-century context
This section of the display focuses on individuals who played a part in the 19th-century journeys of these cuttings. These are collectors, such as Abbot Luigi Celotti, John Ruskin and George Salting, the V&A's first curator John Charles Robinson, and a scholar called Guglielmo Libri, infamous for stealing leaves from manuscripts in French public libraries.
Alongside medieval and Renaissance pieces, 19th-century copies and books testify to the Victorians' infatuation with illumination. Facsimiles were purchased by the V&A to fill in the gaps in its collection and to showcase the skill of 19th-century illuminators. Works by Henry Shaw, Lord Charles Thynne, Ernesto Sprega and Caleb Wing feature in this section where the boundaries between copying, restoring and forging were at times fluid.
The original context
In this section, the focus moves to the original context of the cuttings: what kinds of books did they come from? For whom were these books made and by whom?
Liturgical books, especially choirbooks are best represented in the collection, as many of them went under the knife. Choirbooks had to be large because whole choirs needed to sing from them in church. They were often beautifully decorated, so painted sections cut from their pages still had generous proportions and could be framed like small panel paintings.
The collection also includes leaves from bibles and biblical commentaries. Among the former, feature over 80 leaves from a bible made in Liège around 1300 for the house of the Teutonic Knights in Maastricht. In the 13th century, this powerful German military order had overseen the imposition of Christianity in present-day Poland and Lithuania.
Small cuttings from books of hours are also present in the collection, reflecting the popularity of this type of prayer book, especially in the 15th century. Books with a non-religious content are few, but of great interest. Providing a glimpse into the range of secular subjects covered by a medieval library, they include legal and medical texts, but also literary works. One of the major discoveries made during research for this display was to uncover a previously unpublished miniature missing from a manuscript of Boccacio's Des cleres et nobles femmes now in New York. Painted in vibrant colours, it shows the Greek artist Irene as a 15th-century painter in her studio.