RKD podcast: Medieval manuscript illumination


In the latest of our podcasts made in collaboration with Caspar Stalenhoef, we turn the spotlight on medieval illumination. Anne Margreet As-Vijvers, senior curator at the RKD, explains how these richly decorated manuscripts were created, and why researching them is exciting.

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In a nutshell, illuminated manuscripts are hand-written and decorated books from the Middle Ages. Often they were enriched with painted or drawn illustrations. Books were made to order and clients could specify the type of material and script to be used as well as the manner in which the illumination was to be executed. The production of these illuminated manuscripts involved a large number of skilled craftsmen: while scribes copied the text, others provided the colourful initials and border decorations. The miniatures themselves – the illustrations – were added by specialist artists.

1. Jean Miélot, author and scribe, in his studio. Collection KBR Brussels, Ms. 9278-80, f. 10r, detail (https://opac.kbr.be/LIBRARY/doc/SYRACUSE/18359812)
2. Psalter-Hours of the Bout family, Amsterdam, 1453, supplied with Utrecht miniatures and Haarlem pen-flourishing, 1453. Collection KB The Hague, Ms. 79 K 11, ff. 17v-18r
3. Missal of the Haarlem Knights Hospitallers, c. 1511. Collection Noord-Hollands Archief Haarlem, Oude Boekerij, Ms. 184 C 1, f. 114r


In the latest podcast of the series Kroniek Kunstgeschiedenis (Art-Historical Chronicle), available (in Dutch) on Spotify and Apple Podcasts among other podcast apps, Anne Margreet As-Vijvers talks both about the beautiful aspects of medieval manuscripts and about research into manuscript illumination. Since the 1980s scholars have been searching collections to create a survey of illuminated manuscripts produced and preserved in the Netherlands. The aim of the Byvanck Project – named after Alexander Willem Byvanck, curator of manuscripts at the KB in the early 20th century – was to build a database with records of all (roughly 3000) illuminated manuscripts kept in Dutch collections. The database also includes around 1000 illuminated manuscripts that are known to have been produced in the Northern Netherlands although they are now preserved in foreign collections. Last year the Byvanck Database was transferred to the RKD.

New area of interest

Medieval manuscript illumination is a new subject area for the RKD. The intention is to make the treasures contained in Dutch illuminated manuscripts accessible online, by integrating the Byvanck Database into RKD Explore. Images normally hidden away in illuminated manuscripts are among the finest works of art to have survived from the Middle Ages. In addition, many manuscripts contain valuable clues that can help researchers in localising and dating their decoration and miniatures. This is especially important because far more manuscript illustrations have come down to us than other kinds of medieval paintings.