Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts

Highlights from the museum's outstanding collection of manuscripts, from an alchemical scroll to an alphabet book that belonged to a five-year old princess.

Spanning from the 10th to the 16th centuries, the 150 illuminated manuscripts on show not only represent the leading artistic centres of medieval and Renaissance Europe, but – thanks to research methods more commonly associated with analytical chemistry and art conservation – shed new light onto how pigments and gilding were created.

One of the most exciting discoveries was the presence of smalt in a 15th-century Venetian text. Previously this vivid cobalt, obtained by grinding blue glass, had only been documented in easel paintings completed half a century later.

Infrared analyses of sketches beneath final illuminations also offer insight into the tastes and dispositions of their owners, as well as changing notions of propriety. For example, an alphabet book commissioned for the daughter of Queen Anne of Brittany depicted a naked Adam and Eve, whose figures were clothed by a subsequent owner. 

Don't miss

Among the greatest holdings on display is the Macclesfield Psalter, bought by the museum in 2005 thanks to a public campaign led by the Art Fund.

This stunning work was produced in East Anglia when the area was a booming 14th century artistic hub. Its bizarre and at times monstrous illustrations include a dog dressed as a bishop, an ape giving medical advice to a bear and a trouser-less man pulling a dragon's tongue, all of which reside among exquisitely rendered letterforms.

This fascinating record of medieval humour shows how secular absurdity and religious worship were once able to co-exist with ease.

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Venue details

Fitzwilliam Museum Trumpington Street, Cambridge Cambridgeshire CB2 1RB 01223 332900

Entry details

Free entry to all
Free exhibitions to all

Tue – Sat, 10am – 5pm
Sun & Bank Holidays 12noon – 5pm

Closed Mon, 24 – 26, 31 Dec and 1 Jan