I don't know if become fascinated with medieval art because of illuminated manuscripts or if they were a special prize for finding that I liked this time of history, but either way — they never fail to awe me.
A bit of background on manuscripts — before Gutenberg's 1440 printing press, writing was a manual task, which is why so much of the European population was illiterate.
It was painstakingly slow to create something meant to be read, thus expensive to produce.
Many of the manuscripts we have were produced by monks, and while a majority are religious in nature they are not without humor and fantasy.
These monks were most definitely artists — bending over pages of vellum to etch perfectly aligned letters to recount a story, adding embellishments for additional flourish.
No part of this process was easy. From creating the vellum pages (made from animal skin), to cutting each page uniformly and dotting the margin to mark the starting spot of each line, to mixing the vibrant colors — manuscripts took months if not years to produce.
Thus, they are beautiful, rare pieces of art that indicate a care and attention to craftsmanship that you wouldn't necessarily associate with a time period dotted with the Crusades, wars, hostile feuds, famine, and plague.
A couple years ago, Boston universities and museums partnered together to put on a multi-site exhibition on Illuminated Manuscripts.
One spot, was of course, the Gardner Museum — showcasing lovely humanist manuscripts by the Tre Corone (Three Crowns of Italian literature — Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Aligheri, Francesco Petrarca).
You can see the attention to detail in the uniform letters and the embellishments marking the edges of the page.
We've gained great understanding from the monks that produced these — with margin illustrations that depict the scenes described in the text and fantastical creatures or lewd drawings dotting the pages seemingly just for fun!
I mean, if you were bent over hundreds of pages for months on end, wouldn't you add in some funny pictures to make it more bearable?