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Big golden books: Words of faith illuminated at the British Library


The British Library

Joanne McPortland - published on 05/20/22

'Gold' exhibition features 50 objects from 20 centuries, showing the universal desire to adorn precious words with precious metal.

Did you read Little Golden Books as a child? The favorite stories and colorful illustrations, sturdily bound with shining gold spines, were treasures.

That connection between precious stories and precious metal is almost as old as the written word, as a new British Library exhibition demonstrates with dazzling breadth. Gold (May 20-October 2, 2022) includes 50 manuscripts and books from 20 centuries and 17 languages, all lettered, illuminated, illustrated, and/or bound in gold.

Craft, dedication, and luxury

Adding gold to the written word has never been simple or inexpensive. The objects on display at the British Library testify to the value the words held for the artist, the donor or patron, and the possessor. The gold used is not colored paint, but the actual precious metal, painstakingly applied in thin sheets (gold leaf) or in powdered form (known as shell gold, because the powder was kept in seashells) or hammered and tooled into bindings. Those who worked with gold this way were the most skilled craftspeople of their age, because mistakes were prohibitively expensive.

With gold, the page comes alive, catching the light and even seeming to give it off. We call richly decorated medieval manuscripts “illuminated” — lit up — precisely because of their liberal use of gold.

Golden words of faith

Some of humanity’s most precious texts are words of sacred scripture and prayer. Though not all the objects included in Gold are religious in nature, many are — and they represent texts from 5 major world religions. Here is a taste of the riches from the Christian tradition that visitors will see at the British Library.

The Harley Golden Gospels

The Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels. Carolingian Empire, c. 800.

Copies of the four gospels were prized by Catholic nobility before printed Bibles were available. This amazing manuscript, completely hand-lettered and decorated in gold, is traditionally associated with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great (Charlemagne). It is thought to have been made at Charlemagne’s court at Aachen between 800-814. Can you imagine the steadiness of hand it would have taken to produce these beautifully formed letters with such a tricky medium as gold?

Prayer books fit for a queen

Another part of the Bible prized for personal use was the Book of Psalms. Collections of the psalms, called psalters, were often made as gifts for women of high rank. Gold features two of these.

The Queen Mary Psalter, given as a gift to the Catholic Tudor queen Mary I, is one of the most lavishly illuminated manuscripts in the world. It features more than 1,000 finely rendered illustrations, which scholars believe were the work of one 14th-century anonymous artist.

The Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter. London, early 14th century.

The Psalter of Queen Melisande, which features large golden illuminated capital letters, was produced at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem between 1131-1143. It is an early Crusader manuscript, commissioned by Melisande who, with her husband, Fulke V of Anjou, ruled as queen of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. Melisande, a Frankish princess, went on to be a warrior queen, patron of the arts, and founder of an abbey at Bethany.

Psalters were the precursor of the Books of Hours, illuminated collections of prayers and psalms with which lay people could partake in daily prayer similar to that of monks and nuns.

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold

Benedictional of St Æthelwold.

If you’ve been to a confirmation or ordination celebration, you’ve seen an acolyte or the master of ceremonies hold a book open for the bishop as he gives his episcopal blessing. Bishops had those books in 10th-century England, too, but they were hand-lettered in Latin. This one belonged to St. Aethelwold, the bishop of Winchester. And we know who lettered it and illustrated it so beautifully for him, too, because the craftsman left a note in the book:

A bishop, the great Æthelwold, whom the Lord had made patron of Winchester, ordered a certain monk subject to him to write the present book … He commanded also to be made in this book many frames well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with many beautiful colors and with gold … Let all who look upon this book pray always that after the term of the flesh I may abide in heaven – Godeman the scribe, as a suppliant, earnestly asks this.

When we look upon this fine illustration of the angel greeting the women at the tomb from St. Aethelwold’s Benedictional, let us pray for dear Godeman the scribe!

A real “little golden book”

A tiny girdle book with a gold binding England c 1540.

This tiny beauty is known as a “girdle book” — a miniature prayer book designed to be worn on a ribbon or chain hanging from the waist. It has a hinged cover made of pierced gold with a clasp and loops for threading from the girdle.

Of Tudor English workmanship, this little golden book was long known as Anne Boleyn’s prayer book, perhaps because it contains a miniature portrait of King Henry VIII. According to legend, the ill-fated queen passed the prayer book to one of her ladies in waiting as she stepped to the gallows to be beheaded by a swordsman. Whether or not the association is true, the little golden girdle book full of psalms is a lasting treasure.

Digging for more Gold

There is much more to explore in the British Library’s Gold exhibition. Visit the website for details on how to see the show in person this summer or to participate in online events.

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