Illuminated manuscripts – hand-written and decorated books from the Middle Ages – are precious objects which were frequently enhanced with painted and drawn images. The RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History is making available online the Dutch heritage comprising illuminated manuscripts.
Before the middle of the fifteenth century, when the art of book printing spread across Europe, each book needed to be separately made by hand. The work was done by several craftsmen: some copied the text, others provided the colourful initials and the decorations in the margins, while the miniatures – the illustrations – were the work of specialist artists. The images that are hidden in illuminated manuscripts are among the finest works of art to have survived from the Middle Ages. There are around 75 institutions in the Netherlands whose collections include medieval manuscripts. Together these constitute a remarkable wealth of historic objects: there are many religious works, such as prayer books and illustrated Bibles, but also classics from Dutch cultural history such as the chivalric romances and historical works written by Jacob van Maerlant.
Researchers of Stichting Alexander Willem Byvanck Genootschap have catalogued almost all (c. 3000) illuminated manuscripts in Dutch collections to form the Byvanck database. Moreover, the database includes information about Northern-Netherlandish manuscripts known to be in foreign collections. The database describes not just the manuscripts, but the images which they incorporate: from full-page miniatures to small-scale marginal illustrations. The Netherlands is the only country in the world to have a more or less complete survey of the art of manuscript illumination produced within its territory in medieval times. In order that current and future generations of scholars will be able to use these precious data, the collected material needs to be made accessible online with provisions for long-term maintenance. This is what stimulated Stichting Alexander Willem Byvanck Genootschap to hand over the Byvanck database to the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History.
The database RKD images contains visual documentation for the fine arts of the Netherlands from c. 1200 to the present, but thus far information about manuscripts has been lacking. So the Byvanck database forms a valuable addition to the RKD’s online databases. All the more so since illuminated manuscripts have survived in much larger numbers than panel paintings from the Middle Ages. Shortly, art historians, medievalists and anyone interested will be able to examine and search through thousands of images of medieval miniatures as part of the wider history of art in the Netherlands. Illuminated manuscripts can be relatively securely localised and dated, enabling us to create a research tool which is both up-to-date and directed towards future multidisciplinary research into relations between manuscript illumination and other kinds of artistic production. In addition, plans are underway to build an art-historical webportal which pools together all scholarly information about book illumination in the Northern Netherlands. The RKD will be collaborating with eCodicesNL and Bibliotheek Rotterdam to establish the best way to create sustainable links between the portal and other initiatives for digitising and providing online access to medieval manuscripts.
New subject area
Medieval manuscript illumination is a new subject area for the RKD. Therefore a specialist in the field, Dr Anne Margreet As-Vijvers, has been appointed as senior curator of Medieval Manuscript Illumination as of 1 January 2022. The project Medieval miniatures from Byvanck to the RKD runs from January 2022 until the end of 2025. To read more, visit: https://rkd.nl/en/projects-publications/projects/1161-medieval-miniatures-from-byvanck-to-the-rkd