Home > Harvard, Lecture, Visual Arts > Eight Hours of Medieval Art: or how I found friends who like vellum and cathedrals

Eight Hours of Medieval Art: or how I found friends who like vellum and cathedrals

Margaret of Cleves book of hours

Generally speaking, I can’t say I know very many undergraduate medieval art fans on campus. I am the only junior History of Art and Architecture concentrator focusing on medieval art, and when I tell other students my field most respond with a nose wrinkle and “Why medieval art?” I fell into the world of gold leaf and paintings of Jesus by accident through a serendipitous sophomore tutorial, which, by the way, turned out to be the best academic accident to happen to me.

Being a young medievalist does get a little lonely sometimes. Not that I’m discontent with my field in any way, but I often can’t turn to the typical Joe and ask, “Hey, wanna go see the Belles Heures with me?” with as much of a positive response as when I say, “Let’s check out that Tim Burton show.”

But then there are campus events like the German Manuscript Illumination in the Age of Gutenberg workshop that took place Friday, and I feel utterly spoiled as a Harvard medieval art student. The strangely cold temperatures last week did not deter eager aficionados of medieval art from gathering in the Radcliffe gymnasium to discuss the iconography, aesthetics and history of illuminated manuscripts. I attended it as recommended by Professor Jeffrey Hamburger, who had organized the workshop and was also one of the speakers. To feel like a participant in the conversations on medieval art with people who have a laundry list of publications to their name was truly a treat.

Dürer's marginal drawings for Emperor Maximilian's prayer book

The conference was attended by about 50 manuscript enthusiasts, students and other scholars with a common interest in books of the 15th century. The full-day event comprised a breathtaking series of lectures by seven renowned medieval art experts, from areas in Germany (and one from Oxford) that I dare not attempt to pronounce. The lineup of speakers included Michael Roth from the Kupferstichkabinett, Eef Overgaauw from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Gude Suckale-Redlefsen from the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, Robert Suckale from the Technische Universität in Berlin, Peter Schmidt from Munich’s Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, and Nigel Palmer from Oxford University. James Marrow of Princeton University made the concluding remarks. The concentration of brainpower, knowledge and European accents packed into the gym was overwhelmingly inspiring and left me craving vellum and a trip to a cathedral.

Leaf from a 15th c. Apocalyptic block book

With such an impressive and energetic group of people, it was difficult not to be fascinated by each of their studies, even if you weren’t a medieval art fan beforehand. In the eight or so hours, the speakers discussed a range of issues such as the emergence of the block book and its effect on illuminated leaves, the coloring system in the printed book, and even issues of race regarding the Queen of Sheba in the 15th century. Countless slides showed elaborate leaves from religious books, including one that was illustrated in ink by Albrecht Dürer himself.

The members of this German manuscript dream team are, unsurprisingly, also friends and collaborators, as they are currently working together on an exhibition of German 15th century manuscripts to be shown in 2014 in Berlin and Munich. This exhibit will bring more cultural awareness for the precious, yet not well-known manuscripts.

The increasing amount of emerging literature about the Middle Ages is exciting, and to have been able to spend a day with a group of such celebrities in medieval art studies was both fulfilling and an honor.

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