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Book as Art: Medieval Necessity and Modern Invention

Book as Art: Medieval Necessity and Modern Invention

Illuminated manuscript (literally “hand written”) books are arguably the most characteristic objects of the European middle ages. Contemporary artists, working in a culture dominated by mass-produced books and digitized screen content, are revisiting the challenges and joys of making a book by hand. The themes examined here suggest that medieval and modern artists share common concerns and draw on similar powers of invention.

Exploring the World

In the era before the printing press, the dissemination of knowledge was limited by the pace of the scribe’s hand. Manual production meant that information passed slowly to wealthy patrons who had the means to afford books and knew how to read. Affluent men in great printing centers such as Nuremburg could virtually travel the medieval world while Columbus was discovering America. Women with means learned to read from illuminated books of hours, the same source for medicinal advice. Musical antiphonaries were treasured and passed down by monks. The knowledge behind these books and manuscripts was treasured, the work of many hands. With the world at their fingertips, contemporary book artists have the power to create highly individualized books that allow us to explore a personal view of travel, music, medicine and women’s experience, while still valuing the creativity of collaboration.

Inside the pages

The earliest medieval manuscripts were created through the handcraft of scribes, illuminators and bookbinders. While the invention of the printing press brought books into the reach of a broader audience, today we still value the handmade book, as witnessed by contemporary artists’ books, handmade by choice rather than necessity. Throughout the centuries, artists and craftsmen have used creativity and skill to create these works on paper to share scholarship, spirituality, or to commemorate a personal experience.