The Medieval manuscripts that force us to think differently about art – review 

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Marlay Cutting (detail)
Marlay Cutting (detail)

The visual arts were looked down on as manual labour during the Medieval ages: even monks who created the first brilliant illuminated manuscripts, before a professional class of illuminators arose, were doing so to glorify God, keep their hands from idleness and pass down the written word – not apparently for the sake of creativity.

Then the ages immediately following looked down on Medieval imagery as "barbaric". There is a sense that this intricate, patient art hasn't been appreciated in the way it deserves. 

In two darkened rooms of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, where the displays themselves are lit up, jewel-like, the viewer is indoctrinated into a different pace of picture-making from the one we associate with the modern world, and a different way of thinking about art.

Monk business: The Creation of Heaven and Earth, c. 1460-77 Credit: Andrew Morris

Starting with samples of the plants, metals and crystals from which pigments were derived, the development of the form is explained. Byzantine-influenced illuminations from the 10th century – bold, knotted, severely-edged – are contrasted with the softer, more sinuous Gothic forms to be found in 12th century gospels. A palette full of pinks against greens, azurite against deep vermillions, already points towards the understanding of Renaissance painters like Veronese. 

Meanwhile unfinished work yields surprises. The pages of the Pontifical of 14th century Bishop Renaud de Bar, when complete, offer a masterclass of gold work, the leaf being punched into with a stylus or worked over with shell gold to produce an astonishing, textured glitter. But unfinished sections shows how faces were left until the end, with gold leaf being applied even before the colouring of figures. The effect is a strangely modern artwork in itself, spare, with the gold and the lead white base glowing. 

Sometimes, though the exhibition is thorough and traditional, it gives the impression of also deconstructing Medieval art. Though it was certainly a horrid habit for people, at various points in history, to cut pages from volumes, a curatorial virtue can be made of it. When a book of hours sits in a case, the image on show is offset by the knowledge that we’re missing out on so much, as every other page is likely to be a wonder. This exhibition doesn’t escape this bibliophilic frustration. But mounted loose pages, framed, can be displayed to give a sense of narrative. A group of images 'probably’ from a Psalter – a personal prayer book of Psalms – show us perfect examples of the mid-13th Century style, the body of Christ on the cross thin and elegant, his robes shaded and depicted with a realistic weft. 

By the late 14th and 15th centuries the form reached an apex, as with an encyclopaedia illuminated by the Parisian Master of the Mazarine Hours: the page on display depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The margins are an explosion of spiky ivy which occasionally sprouts dragons and angels. Even the text itself is shot through with gold, polished to a shine. Specimens from the Fitzwilliam are joined by others from collections all over the world: but most of the showstoppers, including this and the Macclesfield Psalter, belong to Britain. 

There are not just bibles and prayer books, but illustrated travel diaries, alchemist’s scrolls full of dragons and amphibious men, persian poems and Nepalese Buddhist spells written in gold on indigo paper. There are even 19th century forgeries. It’s a credit to the exhibition that a decent exposure to the real thing teaches you to spot the fakes, especially in terms of the gold, which here collects in globs, rather than the perfect, fitted armour platting of the art-form’s highpoint.

Safe to say, by the end your eye and mind are attuned, or at least feel more attuned, to the Medieval way of appreciating these rare luxuries. The summer sun, upon coming out into the world, is too gaudy. 

Until 30 December; Tickets: 01223 332900fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk