Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.09.06 de Hamel, The Medieval World at Our Fingertips

19.09.06 de Hamel, The Medieval World at Our Fingertips

This luxuriously illustrated book, meant to accompany an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago January 27-May 28, 2018, introduces us to 33 manuscript cuttings from the collection of scholar and dealer Sandra Hindman, on the occasion of her gift of eleven of these cuttings to the institution. The book serves as more than a simple catalogue of the exhibition, instead setting each of the fragments within its historical milieu by introducing such expansive themes as the importance of the medieval city of Florence; the growth of the cult of saints; how the Bible's text was experienced; norms of commercial manuscript production; the birth of printing; the European diffusion of Dürer's prints; and forgery and copying among collectors of medieval manuscripts. Writing in his characteristic breezy, readable style, de Hamel uses each cutting as a jumping off point to introduce the artistic period, its chief artists, their working environment, and their patrons. The essays are uniformly accessible and informative, and make good use of comparative artworks from the Art Institute and elsewhere.

While the cuttings themselves range chronologically from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, the majority are concentrated at the later end of that range. All are religious in subject or cut from religious manuscripts, including Bibles, graduals, Missals, antiphonals, and Books of Hours. Several, including a small watercolor of Saint Agnes and a pair of miniatures sewn into embroidered frames, were not actually excised from larger works, but were likely intended to remain freestanding devotional images.

As de Hamel affirms, "a cutting out of context is a stateless orphan with limited language" (100). These essays reveal the considerable amount of sleuthing involved in attempting to reconnect the cuttings with their original homes, both in terms of the manuscripts of which they were once part, and the collections in which they rested. de Hamel is forthright about the uncertainties of attributing many of these miniatures, and his tentative identifications of artists and workshops weigh the possibilities carefully. Equally enlightening are his sketches of the role of attribution in the collecting history of many of them. The essay on an initial depicting Mary Magdalene from an antiphonal (#5) is typical. The late fourteenth-century miniature is here attributed to a Lucca illuminator ("follower of Martino di Bartolomeo"). de Hamel begins the essay not with a description of the miniature, however, but with an explanation of how nineteenth-century English collectors spurred the art market for Italian miniature cuttings, the apparent paradox of conservative British Protestants collecting Roman Catholic artworks, a gossipy tour through Dennistoun family history (including the tidbit that Lady Dennistoun had an illegitimate son, who did not inherit the collection), and the unsuccessful machinations of Kenneth Clark and John Pope-Hennessey to remake the Dennistoun collection as pivotal to Tuscan art. The miniature itself merits two short paragraphs in the longer essay.

The occasional lack of detail in the essays about the nominal subjects of the exhibition is remedied, however, by the excellent catalogue at the back, researched and compiled by Matthew J. Westerby. For each miniature one finds a description, provenance, and literature summary and list of sister leaves where appropriate. Also included is a photograph of the reverse of each cutting, if it's not blank. The essays themselves lack footnotes but a bibliographic narrative for each can be found at the back of the book.

Understanding a manuscript cutting's original appearance is by definition hampered by its fragmentary state. Full page views of similar manuscripts have been included here in some cases, which helpfully suggest the miniature's natural environment. Occasionally photographs of folios or miniatures from the same manuscript appear to show very different coloration of paint or parchment (see pp. 30, 79). In cases where this mirrors the reality, it should be addressed; if it doesn't, then color correction was in order. Particularly perplexing is #18, a painting of the Visitation by the Master of the Munich Saint John on Patmos. de Hamel states "the yellow silk robes of the two women are superb" (209). Certainly the glowing yellow silk robes of the sister leaves (208) merit that praise, but the Hindman/AIC miniature pictured on p. 200 clads Mary in muddy mustard and Elizabeth in pinky tan.

The volume's many figures lack figure numbers, and although manuscript shelf marks are carefully enumerated in the text, they are not included in captions, leading on more than one occasion to confusion about which image was being discussed. The list of illustrations pp. 253-58 includes this information, but it should have been listed in the captions. This is a minor quibble with a book that is, on the whole, beautifully produced. Manuscript scholars will rightly now wonder what other treasures the Hindman Collection holds.