Blog / Art by design


By Catherine Stanley
Nasher Museum intern

One of the most important characteristics of a good designer is knowledge of white space, color, angles, fonts, spacing, and scale. The arrangement and manipulation of these elements can vastly change the attitude or vibe of the piece. Think USWeekly versus The Smithsonian. Pretty different, right?

Although modern designers are coached in the ways of grids and informational design, I was surprised to find that artists from the Medieval and Renaissance periods weren’t completely out of touch with what looks good on a page. Yes, we all know that they could manipulate wet plaster and layer fragile sheets of gold onto wooden panels, but the delicacy and precision of their illuminated manuscripts is shocking. The Nasher Museum of Art’s newest exhibition, Sacred Beauty: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts, contains sixteen pages from such manuscripts. The pages were generously loaned to the museum by Robert J. Parsons, a Duke alumnus, and illustrate religious scenes and devotional practices. Although this kind of book was often used within the walls of the church, wealthy families could also commission a similar piece for private devotional worship.

What distinguishes these pieces from other devotional books is their size, material, and detail. The books were largely produced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, periods characterized by the spread of Christianity and the heightened importance of the written word. Once paper was readily available and the printing press was invented, it was no longer a symbol of status and wealth to own a book. Illuminated manuscripts were a different story; expensive, handmade, and beautiful, these special books appealed to the upper class and religious orders. The pages are made of calfskin, stretched incredibly thin and dried. The paint consists of crushed gems and luxurious imported pigments and the pages are accented with burnished gold and silver. Less is not more in this case, and the final product would have cost a pretty penny.

The materials alone are enough to command attention, but the artists didn’t stop there. The detail in which the subjects are painted is extraordinary, and not just the scenes from the life of Christ, which are always considered special. My favorite pages from the collection illustrate day-to-day, common objects (think bugs and flowers) in the trompe l’oeil style. Don’t speak French? Trompe l’oeil literally means “trick the eye,” and these artists were so skilled that it looks as if the bugs could jump off the page.

It’s remarkable that these manuscripts were likely owned by families that stored them safely out of reach of the public eye. Now that they are available for admiration at the Nasher Museum of Art, it would be a shame not to experience these inspiring pages in person… I promise that they are much cooler than your traditional magazine. Check out the collection at the Nasher any time between now and May 10th.

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