If you hang a painting in the sunlight, you will notice its colors fading almost before your eyes. The yellows go first, then the reds, leaving you with a strangely blue landscape. It’s hard to know what the colors in ancient painting really looked like because time has faded them, even if they’ve never actually sat in direct sunlight. The Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition “Colour” aims to show us medieval colors as their creators intended them; as seen in illuminated manuscripts.

The exhibition goes on till the end of this year. It is almost overwhelming: you tend to get a bit blasé about so many beautiful works coming at you one after the other. But stop and look closely at just one and you can see what scientific cunning, skill and artistry went into its creation. One thing that struck me is just how small many of the books are, and consequently how finicky the detailed work was that went into illuminating them.


This page from The Macclesfield Psalter measures about 4¼” by 6½”. On one of the manuscripts (not this one) I noticed that the illuminator clearly considered the space left for him by the scribe to be inadequate as he’d allowed the illumination to extend over the ascenders of the script. You could still read the text, but with some difficulty.




The Fitzwilliam has the largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in any museum, and they have done a great job of displaying 150 of them here. Under the terms of Viscount Fitzwilliam’s bequest many of their manuscripts may never leave the museum. The lighting is low: one of the reasons so many illuminated manuscripts have survived so bright and vivid is that they live inside books which have spent most of their lives closed and protected from the light.

The Museum has also produced a site, Illuminated: Manuscripts in the making which provides even more information than was available on display, including multiple pages from some of the manuscripts. As their About page says “ILLUMINATED invites you to view multiple images within each manuscript, zoom in on details, discover drawings hidden beneath the painted surfaces, learn about the pigments and the advanced scientific methods used for their identification, and explore the relationships between scribes, artists and original owners.” Click on the Lab tab and you’ll get to find all the technical details. One might spend hours at this site. For the enthusiast, the catalog of the exhibition is available for £30 from Harvey Miller Publishers, an imprint of Brepols.