Illuminated manuscripts

The National Art Library at the V&A holds over 300 Western illuminated manuscripts dating from the 11th to the early 20th century, including books of hours, bibles, missals, choir books, classical works, patents of nobility, and grants of arms and illuminated addresses.

In addition to these, the museum's collections also include about 2,500 manuscript cuttings representative of different styles, periods and regions. While a few Islamic and Ethiopian manuscripts are held in the National Art Library, most of the non-Western material is part of the museum's Asian collections.

Sion Gospels, unknown maker, about 1025 – 50 (manuscript) and about 1200 (binding), Switzerland. Museum no. 567-1893, front cover and ff. 163v–164r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten book whose decoration and/or illustration has been painted in gold, silver and rich colours, that make the page shimmer. From its foundation in the mid-19th century, the V&A acquired specimens of manuscript illumination, especially from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to support its mission to educate and inspire contemporary craftsmen, artists and designers. At first, the preference went to purchasing cuttings. The practice of 'breaking' manuscripts to sell pieces removed from bound volumes had begun in the late 18th century and increased in the 19th century, responding to a growing demand. It allowed collectors, private and institutional, to assemble a survey of manuscript painting and ornament from a range of countries and periods.

Initials cut from a choirbook, mid-15th century, northern Italy, Museum nos. 2998, 3000-3004, 3008, 3010, 4001. © Peter Kidd

The size of these cuttings varies from whole pages to snippets of decorated borders and isolated initials: a challenging jigsaw for anyone today seeking to reconstruct the volumes they came from. If a collection had gaps, it was also common practice to purchase facsimiles, that is to say copies of borders or initials from famous manuscripts that exemplified the missing periods, origins and styles.

Copy of an initial 'P' from a 16th-century Italian psalter in the British Library, illuminated by Henry Shaw, about 1860, London. Museum no. 5920. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If the museum acquired manuscript cuttings in large quantities in the 19th century, only a few bound illuminated manuscripts made their way into the collection, mostly post-medieval. A few exceptions to this rule include the Camaldolese Gradual (Florence, about 1380; bought 1865), the St Denis Missal, made for the Abbey of St Denis (Paris, about 1350; bought 1891), and a lavish copy of Pliny's Natural History (Rome, 1460s; bought 1896), which were purchased for the beauty of their initials and borders.

St Denis Missal, about 1350, Paris. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346, f. 256v. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early 20th century, the library's holdings of bound medieval and Renaissance manuscripts were transformed thanks to the generosity of two main donors: George Reid and George Salting.

George Reid (about 1841 – 1910), from Dunfermline in Scotland, gave 83 manuscripts to the museum in 1902 and 1903. Most of these were of a religious nature and dated to the 14th and 15th centuries. The gift included 50 books of hours, mainly from 15th-century France and Italy. Books of hours were the most widespread type of prayer book in western Europe in the late middle ages. They were and still are particularly attractive to collectors, because of their rich decoration and illustrations, shimmering with gold.

So-called Bentivoglio Hours, about 1494 – 1503, Bologna, Italy. Museum no. MSL/1902/1707 (Reid 64), f. 67r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

George Salting (1835 – 1909), heir to a large fortune, collected paintings, prints and drawings, and other art objects including fine illuminated manuscripts, which were respectively donated at his death to the National Gallery, the British Museum, and the V&A. Among these manuscripts was a stunning book of hours made for Margaret de Foix and her husband Francis II, duke of Brittany, in the late 15th century.

Book of Hours of Margaret de Foix, about 1471 – 76, Western France. Museum no. MSL/1910/2385 (Salting 1222), ff. 83v–84r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Further donations and bequests continued to enrich the collection into the 20th century. The expertise and perseverance of curator James Wardrop (1905 – 57) and the support of the Friends of the National Libraries led to important acquisitions, such as four manuscripts by Italian scribe Bartolomeo Sanvito (1435 – 1511), and a miniature prayer book – only 9 cm by 6 cm – signed and dated by Nicolas Jarry, the great 17th-century French scribe.

Sonnets and Triumphs, by Petrarch, about 1463 – 64, Padua, Italy. Museum no. MSL/1947/101, ff. 9v–10r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Owing to the time and circumstances of its foundation, the museum holds examples of manuscript illumination exemplifying the revival of interest for anything medieval in the 19th century. Works by William Morris, A.W.N. Pugin and Phoebe Traquair are present in the library, but also some manuscripts reflecting the popular taste for illumination in Victorian England, such as illuminated addresses commissioned for ceremonial occasions, and instances of amateur illumination. Two high-end French manuscripts stand out as relatively recent acquisitions: the Naives Hours and the politically-charged Chambord Missal. The Missal was presented in 1844 to the Count of Chambord, then head of the House of Bourbon, by the Legitimist Ladies of France, who were in favour of a return to monarchy. The Naives book of hours, on the other hand, was commissioned by Jules Gallois, Count of Naives, for his wife, as a devotional work, though also supporting his claim to descend from noble medieval ancestors.

Heures françoises et latines pour Madame L. Gallois, so-called Naives Hours, 1839 – 42, Paris. Museum no. MSL/1987/7, ff. 12v–13r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The tradition of illuminating manuscripts has lived on in the field of heraldry, and grants of arms (legal documents giving a person right to bear a particular coat of arms or armorial bearings) are still hand-crafted today by calligraphers and illuminators employed by the College of Arms. The library's collections are rich in grants of arms and hand-painted pedigrees (genealogies) dating from the 15th to the 19th century.

Patent of Nobility for Franz Anton von Bihn, from Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, 1764, Austria. Museum no. MSL/1923/166, f. 6r. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Background image: St Denis Missal, f.256v, about 1350, Paris. Museum no. MSL/1891/1346. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London