Ad Astra – The Leiden Aratea and the constellations in the early Middle Ages

Aries Leiden Aratea 34v


One of my biggest passions has always been astronomy: studying the names of the stars, the constellations’ myths, the planets’ movements. This passion has often met my other big love, medieval manuscripts, in the form of awesome astronomical manuscripts. The combination has always been fascinating to me: “Wow, someone hundreds (or thousands) of years ago was looking at the same stars I am looking at today, and was in love as much as me with the spectacle!” If you have ever had a chance to browse through an astronomical manuscript, you will have certainly noticed one thing: the constellations represented on parchment only seldom resemble the ones we see in the night sky. Sometimes, they look just like random dots.

Let’s go and give a look at one of such books; an extraordinary one, to be precise, created more than a thousand years ago: the Leiden Aratea.

The Leiden Aratea’s history

A manuscript dated between 816 and 840, the Leiden Aratea was created possibly near Aachen (other say the Lorraine region.) For over a thousand years it has traveled around northern Europe, eventually ending up at Leiden University Library:

But what is the Leiden Aratea about?  It is an astronomical treatise written by Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BCE –19 CE), also known to be the father of Caligula. The Aratea is a Latin translation of the Greek Phaenomina of Aratus (c. 315-240 BCE); a didactic poem used to describe the constellations and other astrological phenomena to the Macedonian court. It was never meant to be considered an accurate description of the night sky. The books (both the Aratea and the Phaenomina) were intended more for “entertainment”. At the core of the Leiden Aratea there are 38 full-page miniatures, possibly copies of a 4th-century work.

A beautiful and interesting description of this book is available on this article written by Jenneka Janzen.

Compare and contrast

If it’s true that the book was not intended for scientific observation, how much artistic freedom did the illuminator take? It’s simple: let’s compare the miniatures with contemporary imagery of the sky! We begin with something easy to identify to us all: the constellation of Orion. The first thing we have to know is that the constellation is represented looking towards left, while the real constellation in the sky has the hunter looking towards the right. In order to better compare the two, the Aratea’s miniature has been turned to the right.


As you can see from the slider above, the depicted constellation does recall the real counterpart, but sometimes it is simply impossible to correctly identify the individual stars. For example, the “sword of Orion” is depicted as being on the right side of Orion’s Belt, while in truth it is found directly under it. Also the miniature appears to have a “backbone” made of three different stars which find not real counterpart. Betelgeuse,  Meissa, Bellatrix (the stars that constitute “head and shoulders” of Orion, together with Rigel and Saiph (the “knees”, or “feet”) and Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka (the “belt”) are there, and easy to identify. Curious to see that the constellation “Lepus” is also represented running between the legs of Orion, while in the sky it actually runs further down towards the horizon, chased by “Canis Major”.

IAU Orion chart
IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Let’s take for another example the representation of the Pleiades. According to the legend these were the seven daughters of the titan Atlas:

• Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades, was mother of Hermes by Zeus.
• Electra was mother of Dardanus and Iasion, by Zeus.
• Taygete was mother of Lacedaemon, also by Zeus.
• Alcyone was mother of Hyrieus, Hyperenor and Aethusa by Poseidon.
• Celaeno was mother of Lycus and Eurypylus by Poseidon.
• Sterope (also Asterope) was mother of Oenomaus by Ares.
• Merope, youngest of the seven Pleiades, was wooed by Orion. In other mythic contexts she married Sisyphus and, becoming mortal, faded away. She bore to Sisyphus several sons.

The way they have been represented in the Aratea is, well: nice and tidy, possibly to accommodate the aspects of the seven sisters. If we compare it to the way the stars look nowadays, it is difficult to indicate with certainty which real star belongs to the faces in the miniature.

Pleiades in folio 42v Leiden Aratea
Pleiades in folio 42v.

So, why are the stars placed in a rather imprecise manner?
Well, the answer appears to be that the stars themselves didn’t matter that much. What mattered in the Aratea was the poem, the iconography, the mythology; not the scientific accuracy.
The Aratea was not meant to be taken outside on a starry night, to compare the stars with what was drawn in the book as we do today with our tablets and smartphones.
Even in manuscripts that had more to do with the stars themselves (CLM 210), the stars were depicted in an apparently random manner.

Truth is, who drew the illuminations wasn’t an astronomer, someone who actually had the will to go outside at night, find the constellation and draw it again. They were illuminators: they were told to draw the constellations, and so they did. But not by looking at the stars in the sky, but by looking at other books. Older books. “That’s how the old masters drew them, they must be correct!”; “Well… the text says there is a star in the Dog’s tongue in the Dog’s constellation. I’ll draw a dog; a tongue; a star!”. This creative decision suggests that miniaturists who copied the Aratea, and many other manuscripts dedicated to stars, considered the drawing of any similar form of a constellation an adequate copy of that constellation. If we follow this principle then we can explain some of the diversity displayed by these pictures of the constellations.

This is clearly a very, very, simplified explanation of what was going on. For example, we also have to consider all the theological/philosophical influence that would have had an impact on the whole manuscript and its miniatures. An extremely intriguing aspect that would make a solid base for another blog! There are entire books dedicated to this matter. I particularly found the following dissertation “illuminating” and helpful while writing this blog: Ramirez-Weaver, Eric. “Carolingian Innovation and Observation in the Paintings and Star Catalogs of Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms. 3307.” Order No. 3312920 New York University, 2008. Ann Arbor. Highly recommended, have fun reading it!

The Bamberg State Library’s Digital Collection

De natura rerum - Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Nat.1
De natura rerum – Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Nat.1

Today we are going to give a look at the Digital collection of Bamberg State Library. A fantastic collection of manuscripts, fully digitized, in high quality, and available for everyone to browse, explore, and study. Actually, we should be speaking of collections, plural, since two collections are present: The collection “Manuscripts of Henry II” is traced back to the emperor Henry II, who founded the bishopric of Bamberg in 1007; and the new digital collection. Let’s see!

The first horseman, Conquest on the White Horse
Bamberger Apokalypse – 14r – The first horseman, Conquest on the White Horse – The text reads:
Then I saw when the Lamb broke one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. – Revelation 6:1-2˄

Manuscripts of Henry II

The first collection derives from the many precious manuscripts Henry II and his predecessors had collected or commissioned. Manuscripts from various spiritual centers of the West were brought to Bamberg as a result. Completed since 2013, this collection contains all this 165 manuscripts associated with Henry II, which originated in or before his lifetime.

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg; photo: Gerald Raab
Msc.Can. 13 – Staatsbibliothek Bamberg; photo:
Gerald Raab

Treasures of the Bamberg State Library

The new digital collection, part of the website “Treasures of the Bamberg State Library”, also contains the aforementioned collection of Henry II, along with a constantly updated collection of newly digitized medieval manuscripts.
In the ensuing period many books were written and illuminated in the town, notably in the 12th century by the Benedictine monks of Mount St. Michael. All that remained of these manuscripts in the monasteries of the town and bishopric up to 1802/1803 was incorporated into one library (now the Bamberg State Library) during the period of German Mediatisation. Among the incredible manuscripts you can find in the Digital collection of Bamberg State Library you can find a medical manuscript from 1300 with a lot of medieval medical equipment; the “Bamberger Psalter” with its magnificent illuminations; the “Bamberger Apokalypse” with imagery in 49 incredible fascinating miniatures (49 is a multiple of 7, a number with particular importance in Christian religion.)

The Bamberg Psalter

The Bamber Psalter - 9v
9v – The Baptism of Christ
The Bamber Psalter - 117r
117r – Judgement
The Bamber Psalter - 115v
115v – The Resurrection
The Bamber Psalter - 115r
115r – The Crucifixion
The Bamber Psalter - 63r
63r – Initial Q – David and Goliath
The Bamber Psalter - 62v
62v – Judas’ Kiss
The Bamber Psalter - 61v
61v – The entrance of Jesus in Jerusalem
The Bamber Psalter - 61r
61r – The Devil tempts Jesus

Final Words

A real treasure-trove, the website is easy to navigate, and so are the very well digitized manuscripts, which are enjoyable in high-resolution. The manuscripts are can be listed by signature, date of origin, and place of origin.

Worth a thousand visits.

Crowdfunding for the Prayer Book of Mary of Guelders

prayer book of Mary of Guelders

The Prayer Book of Mary of Guelders needs help!

Ladies and Gentlemen, manuscripts lovers and culture defenders: there is a book in need of heroes! As some of you might have heard, the Prayer Book of Mary of Guelders is in need of repairs. This manuscript was copied in the monastery of Mariënborn by Helmich die Lewe in 1415. As beautiful as it is fragile, the book was once in possession of Duchess Mary of Guelders and it will turn 600 years old in 2015. Medievalist Johan Oosterman wants to return this book to the hands of researchers and into exhibitions with your help.

The video that presents the book (in Dutch with English subtitles) is an excellent testimonial to the beauty and the fragility of this illuminated manuscript.

You can help by donating directly at crowdfunding webpage (Dutch and English).

You can follow Johan Oosterman and the Prayer Book of Mary of Guelders on Twitter or Facebook.

New digitized manuscripts from the Vatican Library!

Well, this is the third time here at Sexy Codicology that we are delighted to communicate that the Vatican Library has, once again, digitized and made available a few hundreds new manuscripts!

Since we started the DMMmaps project, the Vatican Library has more than doubled the number of digitally available books. Plus, they have reorganized the home page: Where once you could see the endless list of manuscripts available (now 1’500+!), there is now a tidier page showing the collections and then number of digitized books you may find inside.
An old problem is still present: it is impossible to know which were the most recently uploaded books; unfortunately there is no RSS, nor is there any specific announcement which tells us what is new.

Too bad. I guess it is up to us users to explore!

New manuscripts from the Vatican Library

Barb. lat. 570 11v
Barb. lat. 570 11v
Ott. lat. 74 193v
Ott. lat. 74 193v
Vat. lat. 83 170v
Vat. lat. 83 170v
Vat. lat. 83 77r
Vat. lat. 83 77r
Reg. lat. 1283 pt.A 29r
Reg. lat. 1283 pt.A 29r
Reg. lat. 1283 pt. A 4v
Reg. lat. 1283 pt. A 4v
Reg. lat. 438 27v
Reg. lat. 438 27v
Reg. lat. 438 10v
Reg. lat. 438 10v
Reg. lat. 337 3r
Reg. lat. 337 3r
Reg. lat. 12 62r
Reg. lat. 12 62r
Ott. lat. 74 15v
Ott. lat. 74 15v
Barb. lat. 570 125r
Barb. lat. 570 125r

We can’t be sure these are completely new online, but nonetheless, they are amazing.

As always you can access the digital collection of the Vatican Library via the DMMapp, or have fun exploring one of the 300+ other collections available all over the world.

The Unique Petau – Rothschild Hours

Petau Rothschild Hours

Last year we received a message on our Facebook page; it was a request for help finding the name and information concerning a manuscript. On a late evening we went on a quest to do just that. What we discovered during the adventure was the Petau – Rothschild Hours. An incredible manuscript we had never seen before!

Dated between 1500 and 1510, the “Peteau Hours” or “Petau – Rothschild Hours” consists of 44 sheets of vellum of 230 x 140 mm, containing 33 lines per the page on two columns. It is written in humanistic script in brown ink. The headings are written in green, while capital letters are red or blue; there are also some initials which are painted on a golden background.

Petau - Rothschild Hours
One of the miniatures in the Petau – Rothschild Hours.

The text is accompanied by 16 miniatures, shaped in  the form of medallions of 65 mm diameter each, or monochrome decor with red highlights, white, blue, yellow and pink. These illuminations are attributed to John Bourdichon, painter of the illuminations in the “Great Hours of Anne of Brittany“. However, in more recent times François Avril in his work on manuscript painting in France attributed these to Tourangeau Jean Poyet, who worked between 1490 and 1520, also painter of various other illuminated books.


Avant-garde manuscript book design 1-on-1

The illuminations in the “Hours Petau” are exceptional, but what is even more exceptional is the layout of the book: Jean Poyet placed these miniatures in pairs (on the front, recto, and back, verso, of one folio) at the beginning and end of every office in the book. Nothing exceptional until now, but what is extremely rare is the fact that all the folios in the manuscript, except the ones home to these illuminations, have a circular cut in the middle that allows the reader to always look at the same miniature while going through the book of hours. See image below and the video!

Reading around we discovered that Jean Poyet created also another manuscript with a similar layout. It is kept by the Royal Library in Copenhagen, and called the “Thott Hours“. In this case the miniatures and the cuts in the manuscript are diamond-shaped and not round. The Thott Hours have been digitized and are available for free to view online, but due to the fact that the images are scanned flat, it is difficult to notice that the folios have holes in them, and that there is only one miniature every few pages.

Another of the miniatures in the Petau - Rothschild Hours: Symbols of the four evangelists and Mary with Child.
Miniature from the Petau – Rothschild Hours: Symbols of the four evangelists and Mary with Child.

Provenance: Sold and gone for a long while (hopefully not for forever)

It is not clear for who the Petau – Rothschild Hours were originally made, but in the seventeenth century the manuscript was in possession of either Alexandre Petau (famous book collector) or his son, Paul. In the eighteenth century Alexandre’s collection was sold and dispersed. In the nineteenth century the book appears to have been in the collection of Baron James de Rothschild, whose arms are now visible on the binding.  After this we find that this book of hours  went in the possession of the New York Bookseller Kraus who kept the book until 1974, when Paul-Louis Weiller acquired it. The book then went on auction one last time in 2011, when it sold for 1’800’000 euros. To whom? We do not know, but what we do know is that, unfortunately, this means that the manuscript will probably not be digitized for a long, long time.

A rather sad ending for an otherwise wonderful story of a stunning manuscript. When we discovered it we were blown away. This goes to show that although here at Sexy Codicology we love manuscripts, we study them, explore them on a daily basis, there will always be something we have never seen before that will make us fall in love with these books again and again.

(The information in this post is partially based on the translation of this page, from which we learned it went on auction and away.)

Another of the miniatures in the Petau - Rothschild Hours.
Another folio from the Petau – Rothschild Hours.

The Adventures of Medieval Killer Bunny: A Musical Vacation

BL Add. ms 49622 - f129v

It’s Xmas time! Christmas songs and carols everywhere! In this newest instalment of The Adventures of Medieval Killer Bunny we are going to look at what the medieval bunnies are planning for theholidays! Like everyone, also they sometimes need some relaxation and fun, and most importantly, a break from their killer jobs; and since we are sure you have heard “Jingle bells” and “Joy to the World” for the past month or so, it is only appropriate that in this post we will meet the Musical Killer Bunnies.

Rudolphus, the red-nose killer bunny

Bodl. Douce 5 roll 208 H
Bodl. Douce 5 roll 208 H

Browsing manuscripts you might have often seen rabbits blowing on a horn, but you might have also noticed that this is not the only instrument that they can play. As we see in the pictures below, medieval rabbits were also good at playing all kinds of instruments…. Or perhaps they only made it seem so, to distract you before they nibbled your bum.

What is particularly interesting about these marginal drawings is that animals, human figures and grotesques (defined by the British library as: “a hybrid and comic figure, often combining elements from various human and animal forms”) were all mixed together. There was no regard for proportions, which gave you man-sized rabbits, or miniature deers next to human figures. Sometimes these animals, grotesques, or humans were drawn as an extension of the border decoration. It is common to see all sorts of animals doing human things like hunting, jousting, battling and as we are showing you in this post, playing musical instruments. This kind of decoration was accepted in medieval times; marginal scenes depicted daily life turned upside down. Particularly interesting is that often we see the most curious and ridiculous scenes in the margins of religious texts. It always surprises me that this was allowed in such books.

Bodl. Ashmole 1525
Bodl. Ashmole 1525
Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0107
Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0107
BL Royal 3 D VI
BL Royal 3 D VI
Rennes Ms0255
Rennes Ms0255
Bodl Lat. liturg. f
Bodl. Lat. liturg.
Bodl. Douce 6
Bodl. Douce 6

So there you have it: as the marginalia shows us, the ninja killer bunnies don’t only like to spend their time killing stuff; they also enjoy having some fun and making music. In the manuscript pictures above you can see that in those days of merry feasting, the bunnies make temporary peace with their enemies and party together in full Christmas mood!

Not only medieval bunnies!

Whereas some manuscripts have bunnies making music aplenty, we also found quite a nice collection of other animals playing musical instruments; as you have seen in this post, the bagpipes are a very popular instrument together with the harp, organ/organetto and horn. This does not only apply to the hares, but all sorts of animals. Beside the laughs, it could be really interesting to research the connections between the instrument displayed in these manuscripts and their counterparts in real medieval life!

Royal 2 B VII, f. 192. Grotesques playing instruments
Royal 2 B VII, f. 192. Grotesques playing instruments
Beinecke, Rothchild f. 45v, "horse" playing a bagpipe.
Beinecke, Rothchild f. 45v, “horse” playing a bagpipe.
Douce 5, f.100r
Douce 5, f.100r, Jingle all the way!
Douce 5, f. 180v
Douce 5, f. 180v – Jingle bells!
Harley 6563, f. 41, Boar and organetto
Harley 6563, f. 41, Boar and organetto

Together with the killer bunnies and their instruments (musical, and killing instruments that is) the Sexy Codicology team wishes you a merry Xmas and a joyful 2015!

PS! Stay tuned: Soon, we will be posting another instalment of the Killer Bunny Adventures!

A new e-codices experience!


Yesterday we showed you how the Utrecht Library is brilliantly promoting a manuscript of great importance in the Netherlands. Today we are bringing your attention to how Switzerland is skillfully managing the digitization of all its collections on e-codices.

You are probably aware of e-codices already:

e-codices offers free online access to medieval and early modern manuscripts from public and church-owned collections as well as from numerous private collections.

It currently allows access to 1189 digitized manuscripts (many more being added soon!) and it has always had a pleasing interface to go with it.

The new e-codices interface, with Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 3
The new e-codices interface, with Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 3

The new e-codices

Recently e-codices has updated this interface with what we believe to be even a better one: a clean page with all the information one would wish from a digitized manuscript (TEI-P5 metadata), along with a large preview image of the book, is presented to the user; all on a responsive design that adapts to tablets, phones and desktop monitors.

There is a new viewer based on OpenSeadragon and SharedCanvas is being used to unite dispersed manuscripts.

A new side bar is also in place, which can be shown or hidden, and it displays the metadata and basic information about each manuscript.

To finish up: Search has been improved even further, and there have been improvements also on the back-end of things.

great quality of the digitized manuscripts on e-codices
An example of the exquisite details you can explore, thanks to the great quality of the digitized manuscripts on e-codices. (St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek / Cod. Sang. 53)

I can’t but urge you all to go and visit (and enjoy) this beautiful site. It is done with a lot of love and passion, and it really shines through

You can obviously access all the libraries from e-codices via the DMMapp.

Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. 167
Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. Rh. 167

The Utrecht Psalter or, “How to promote digitized manuscripts”

What do you do with a super-awesome manuscript like the Utrecht Psalter? You make a super-awesome website to go with it. Not only: you make super-awesome YouTube videos to promote it, and catchy animations so that also casual visitors will be intrigued by what is being shown; plus you make sure that you spread the word on the right social media channels to gain visibility.

This is exactly what the University of Utrecht (Universiteit Utrecht) has been doing. A message appeared recently on our Facebook page:

The Utrecht Psalter, currently owned by the Utrecht University Library, has just been nominated for UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. In 2015, UNESCO will decide whether the medieval manuscript will be given a place in this documentary heritage register. Dating back to the ninth century, the Utrecht Psalter is one of the most valuable manuscripts held in a Dutch collection. Check the new website (with complete digitized version of the psalter):

We went to the indicated website to investigate. We already knew the manuscript: dated between 820 and 830 CE, it was either created in Reims or in the abbey of Hautvilliers; probably meant as a gift for Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne), it is richly illustrated in a very distinct style that stood out when compared to other contemporary manuscript decorations.

a folio from the utrecth psalter

Univeristeit Utrecht has gone great lengths to promote the Utrecht Psalter: Much about the manuscripts is explained in the excellent videos the placed on YouTube, explaining how it got to Utrecht and how and why it was made.


The Utrecht Psalter has been nominated for the UNESCO list. The decision will be taken in mid-2015, to decide whether this masterpiece will find its place among others on the documentary heritage register.

The Utrecht Psalter Online: an example for others

Useless to say, Utrecht University is setting an example on how a library (or any institution) should promote its contents. The website that has been created is informative, interesting and a pleasure to go through. I truly wish there would be a website like this for every manuscript in the world.

You can find out more about the Utrecht Psalter on the following channels:

The Crusader Bible from the Morgan Library

Crusaders from the Morgan Bible

The manuscript that we want to highlight for you today is the Morgan Library’s Crusader Bible. It is also known as the Morgan Picture Bible, the Maciejowski Bible or the Shah ‘Abbas Bible. The book is an Old Testament that was originally made with only miniatures to tell the stories. Later, inscriptions in Latin, Persian and Judeo-Persian were added.

According to the Morgan Library, it is not only one of the most awesome and beautiful manuscripts they own, but also one of the highlights of French Gothic illumination.

The Morgan Bible
2 Samuel 18:9 – And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away.

This manuscript was, for some time, associated with the French King Louis IX and his Seventh Crusade (1244-1254). Unfortunately, there is no clear and definitive evidence to support the claim that this manuscript was owned or commissioned by this king. The proof is only circumstantial.

The Crusader Bible, a bit of history

The Crusader Bible was possibly made in Paris, but for certain in Northern France. Even in the 13th century this would’ve been an extremely valuable book and very expensive to have made. So, in any case, the patron of this work was from high society in France (in the manuscript the Biblical kings are wearing crusade armor with the French royal fleur-de-lis on it). The work was created as a 46 folio-manuscript with only miniatures. This would have been no problem for most readers in those times; they knew the Bible so well that they would recognize the scenes right away. However, the Crusader Bible does not cover the entire Bible, only parts of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and Samuel.

The Morgan Bible

When it was made, there were actually 48 leaves in this book. Most of them (43) are now in the Morgan Library, two you can find in the Bibliothèque National de France, one in the J. Paul Getty Museum and two are unfortunately missing.

According to the Morgan Library, the scenes that were painted in the manuscript depict famous and less famous Biblical events. But, most of all, the battles are portrayed in a very gruesome, yet super detailed way. So detailed, that the machines of war can be replicated from the miniatures only! All of this, of course, painted in a landscape and costume of 13th-century France.

The Morgan Bible

About 40 % of the Crusader Bible was painted by one master, the rest by at least 4 other people. It remains a great mystery who they were and no other works by their hands are known at this point in time.

Just this month a new exhibition titled The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece was opened in the Morgan Library. For those of you that are, like us, too far away to pop by for a visit, you can see their online exhibition. It’s an interesting read, especially how the manuscript travelled all over the world in the last centuries! Or you can go browse the digitized manuscript and enjoy all its beauty!

The Morgan Bible The Morgan Bible The Morgan Bible

On “Quill” – Extended edition

BPL-304, f.142v, Watermark

As you surely know, “Quill” was recently launched. Quill is a website a new website for medieval manuscript lovers put together by Dr. Erik Kwakkel, who had the idea, took care of the texts and made sure it’d be a success, and I, who had the pleasure of taking care of the photos. Erik put together a fantastic blog post about it, to which I contributed too. I ended up writing a bit too much for it, so it had to be reduced a bit in length in the end.

Quill Books before print
Quill Books before print

Here follows the original text I wrote, in case you are curious of what an awesome internship it was!

Quill, how it all started

When I was asked to take pictures of medieval manuscripts for this project I was thrilled; when I was told I would have essentially unlimited access to the manuscripts from the exquisite collection in the Leiden University Library, I was as excited as the proverbial child in the candy store.
What an opportunity! But then the question dawned on me: How do you take photos of manuscripts? How do I make photos that will interest someone who might have never seen a manuscript before?
Thanks to Erik’s lessons at the time of my Master, I knew exactly what had to be photographed and an idea of where to find them (“internal pricking? It’ll be in a manuscript from England… VLF 1 is from England…” tadaaah!). I spent most of the time browsing through manuscript catalogs and manuscripts’ descriptions, searching for the right book to use for the shots. Once the desired detail was found, the actual photographing begun. But, first things first: respect the manuscript! It might happen that I would find a detail that could make a perfect picture, but to get the photo right I might have to mishandle the manuscript in some way. Of course, that was a no-no; if that happened, I would return the manuscript and go back to the catalog and start searching for another candidate. Once an ideal manuscript was found, I used the oldest trick in the box for directing viewer’s attention towards the detail described: Depth of field. This would ensure that only the detail in question would result focused in the picture, and the surroundings blurred (see the decorating the book page I had a very good lens (f/2.8) that allowed me to do just that. The lighting was a bit of a problem, since I was in the Special Collections room, I had no direct control. Most of the time I had to wonder around the table and find the right angle at which there wouldn’t be shadows or strange reflections.
Overall, it has been a wonderful experience and I really feel blessed when I look back at the pictures I took and remember the excitement of opening every manuscript, wondering what beauties would be hidden inside.00

Some 500 photos and around a thousand manuscripts after…

There are two photos I am particularly fond of: One is the initial P (Plinius) from VLF 1 f. 1r, and the second is the image of the watermark from BPL 304.
The initial from Pliny I simply find pleasing to the eye: I enjoy the contrast between the white modern paper addition on the left, and the parchment on the right: It is the opening page of the manuscript, and the “P” is welcoming us to the book, taking all our focus that, at a later stage, will shift to other elements in the same page. I like to believe that this photo captures the moment when you open a manuscript you have never seen before, and you are captivated by unexpected decoration.

Initial P from Leiden VLQ 38, f. 23r
Initial P from Leiden VLQ 38, f. 23r

Taking a picture of a watermark was technically challenging instead: The manuscript’s folios are made of paper, and although paper made in 1600’s is more resilient than the contemporary counterpart, it is still delicate and had to be handled with extra care. I had no control over light sources, but I knew that I would have needed a strong light to come through the back of a page, in order to let the watermark shine through. The plan then became to wait for the Sun to go down in the late afternoon, and let some of the light shine through the Special Collections’ windows onto the manuscript. All I had to do then was kneel before the book and take the picture of the naturally bending folio.

BPL-304, f.142v, Watermark
BPL-304, f.142v, Watermark

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