Softly lit walls and echoes of medieval chamber music provide the backdrop for a history-buff’s dream-come-true in the Montreal Museum of Fine Art (MMFA)’s current exhibition, Resplendent Illuminations. The show, which runs until Jan. 6, exhibits the work of centuries-old craftsmen in a sizable collection of books of hours.
One of the most widely distributed forms of literature in the Middle Ages, books of hours are Christian devotional texts, named for their prescription of specific prayers to be performed at designated hours of the day. Notable prayers within the books include the hours of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, and various other saints. Critics and historians have lauded books of hours for their ornamental design and lettering, as their aesthetic beauty and lavish materials are meant to convey piety.
The books of hours displayed in Resplendent Illuminations date from the 13th to 16th centuries and are drawn from a variety of personal and private collections, including McGill University’s rare books collection. While many of the books are shown in their entirety, several of the artifacts have survived only as single sheets due to the passage of time. Many of the books pages are also warped, likely by water, or due to poor-quality paper.
Still, the delicate lines and elaborate patterning reveal the painstaking care that conservators and historians have taken to preserve the medieval works. Many of the pages on display are devoted to scenes of religious lamentation or Christian religious imagery. Each book is framed either by architectural backgrounds showcasing early attempts at linear perspective, or by tangles of bright flowers and tracing vines. When looking from a specific angle, the works gleam; careful brushstrokes of gold leaves shimmer, accentuating lettering and framing religious figures.
Stepping away from the MMFA’s graphic prints and suspended sculptures was a staggering experience; both the space where the works were displayed and the attention they demanded were enough to temporarily distract from the realities of present-day. The books of hours had a resounding immediacy, showcasing the artist’s hand in a way often absent from polished prints. Peering into the long cases filled with books was awe-inspiring. It’s easy to imagine the production of the ornamental books and the reactions they inspired.
Amidst the clutter of ancient artifacts in many medieval exhibitions, illuminated manuscripts such as the books of hours are often overlooked. It takes a patient eye to appreciate the intricate floral designs and detailed facial expressions. Modern technological advancements mean we are often desensitized to the history of process and production. Resplendent Illuminations is a deliberate reminder of the craftsmanship once demanded to produce even a single page of a book, and the age old relationship between Christianity and the visual arts.
Resplendent Illuminations runs until Jan. 6, 2019. Tickets are available at https://www.mbam.qc.ca/en/exhibitions/on-view/resplendent-illuminations/