South Park – North Park – Golden Hill

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Monks, memes, and medieval art

Monks, memes, and medieval art
The digitization of medieval illuminated manuscripts has made this art form widely available to modern audiences.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440 in Germany, everything changed. For the first time, words didn't have to be meticulously hand-copied and multiple copies of books could be printed at one time. The first book to be mass printed? The Bible. Finally the sacred text, long the purview of monastics and the wealthy, became available to everyone-regardless of class. 

But the Bible had existed in print long before Gutenberg's printing press. In the Middle Ages, it was largely monks who printed and bound books of scripture-by hand. The process was painstaking. The results were beautiful. They reproduced the words in delicate calligraphy, and images accompanied the stories. Each page was a unique work of art and a testament to the beauty of God's word. 

Referred to as "illuminated manuscripts," these books were not widely available. At first they were used only for private worship in the monasteries where they had been created. Some secrets can't be kept forever, though, and soon members of the ruling class and high-ranking church officials wanted their own illustrated texts. They began paying these monks to create original copies of the Bible specifically for them. 

Eventually demand grew past the ability of monks to meet it, and by the 12th century religious orders no longer had the monopoly on bookmaking. Secular artists and scribes saw value in the manuscript-making business and took up the craft. But each copy of the Bible took years to make, so the manuscripts remained few and far between. 

Today perhaps the most famous remaining illuminated manuscript is the Book of Kells, located at Trinity College in Dublin. Every year more than 500,000 visitors view the book, far more than ever would have seen the manuscript when it was new. However, even given the Book of Kells' popularity, you are still hard-pressed to find anyone who has seen an illuminated manuscript in person. For centuries, these books remained just as rare and precious as they had always been.

This has changed, however, thanks to recent advancements in technology. Scholars have begun teaming up with technological experts to scan illuminated manuscripts, publish them online, and bring this art form to the world. Today, people around the world can view medieval art and come to appreciate what these manuscripts reveal about human history. New audiences are coming to appreciate the monks' careful and contemplative practice. These works are remarkable in how they translate faith into art and bring to life the word of God. 

No comments: