Abbey Bookshelf: Illuminated Manuscripts


Today I am continuing our theme this week of illumination.  Several weeks ago I did my Sacred Artist Interview with Jan Richardson.   I shared the kinship I have felt with Jan because of her love of illuminated manuscript and the way they serve as inspiration for her own work.  Several years ago Phil Cousineau edited these two wonderful books (which you can still find used copies of) — The Soul of the World: A Modern Book of Hours and The Soul Aflame: A Modern Book of Hours, which was really the first place I had ever seen anyone create a contemporary version of the medieval Book of Hours.  These two small volumes are filled with beautiful poetry and photos — one of my favorite combinations!

Two of my favorite books are by Robert Wieck about the medieval tradition of the Book of Hours: Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art and Time Sanctified: The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life both provide a fascinating window into the creation of these treasures.  You can also purchase reproductions of certain volumes, such as Illuminations from Books of Hours (British Library)Books of Hours (Phaidon Miniature Editions), Book of Hours: Illuminations by Simon Marmion, The Bedford Hours (Medieval Manuscripts in the British Libr Series), and A Treasury of Hours: Selections from Illuminated Prayer Books.

Last summer I went to Ireland and loved being able to go see the The Book of Kells, although after waiting in a very long line outside in the rain and then squeezing through crowds to see the exhibit and only having a few minutes in a large group to gaze at a couple of pages of the original text through glass, it was a little anti-climactic. 

My absolute favorite discovery in Dublin however, was the Chester Beatty Library.   Chester Beatty was a wealthy American mining engineer who retired to Dublin with his vast collection of illuminated manuscripts from across religious traditions, including Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and a few Jewish.  I fell in love with this place where hardly any people were to be found, and I could spend hours  in silent reverence lingering over the beautiful images and words.

I find Hebrew and Arabic calligraphy especially beautiful.  At the Chester Beatty, the Islamic manuscripts were my favorite with their amazing intricate work.  Qur’an Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design and Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image are two nice volumes of introduction to the manuscripts of other traditions.  In my searching for more resources, I also discovered Sacred: Exhibition Catalogue from the British Library which also includes work from across religious traditions and I may just have to purchase for myself.

The Saint John’s Bible, which is a contemporary project of creating contemporary illuminated texts for the scriptures is also stunning.  I have had to satisfy myself with a copy of The Art of Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Pentateuch, Psalms, Gospels and Acts (Saint John’s Bible) since I can’t afford the full volumes.  They have published the Pentateuch, Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Books, and Gospels and Acts.  Maybe I’ll ask for one for my birthday.

Even more exciting, for those of us who live in the Seattle-Tacoma area, is the upcoming exhibition of the Saint John’s Bible at the Tacoma Art Museum from July 12-September 7, 2008. I already have it on my calendar!

Images from Top to Bottom:
“At Her Table: Mary Magdalene with a Book of Hours” by Jan Richardson
*Illuminated Frontispiece (18th C, North Africa)
*Illuminated Initial B(eatus vir), Psalter, c. 1235, German
*A Leaf from an Italian Dogale, c. 1530, Venice, Itlay
*Sunburst Motif (shamsa), Qur’an, Early 16th C. Iran
(*above four images are from the Chester Beatty Library Collection)
Baptism of Jesus (detail), by Donald Jackson, from the Saint John’s Bible

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You Are Invited! 

Coming in December I will be offering a four-day Contemplative Art & Movement Retreat with an Oblate friend of mine who is also a yoga teacher.  The retreat will be structured around the monastic tradition of praying the hours with a creative twist — we will be praying them through blessed movements, a gentle series of yoga-inspired movements to help us embody the Psalms.  In between, I will lead poetry writing and collage work to create our own contemporary versions of the Book of Hours.  I have long dreamed of offering such a program, so I am excited to finally have committed to making it happen.

So consider marking your calendars and coming to the beautiful Northwest to join us!

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

** For more illumination, please visit this week’s Poetry Party! **

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