Gustave Doré’s Haunting Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy

Inferno, Canto X:

Many artists have attempted to illustrate Dante Alighieri's epic poem the Divine Comedy, but none have made such an indelible stamp on our collective imagination as the Frenchman Gustave Doré.

Doré was 23 years old in 1855, when he first decided to create a series of engravings for a deluxe edition of Dante's classic.  He was already the highest-paid illustrator in France, with popular editions of Rabelais and Balzac under his belt, but Doré was unable to convince his publisher, Louis Hachette, to finance such an ambitious and expensive project. The young artist decided to pay the publishing costs for the first book himself. When the illustrated Inferno came out in 1861, it sold out fast. Hachette summoned Doré back to his office with a telegram: "Success! Come quickly! I am an ass!"

Hachette published Purgatorio and Paradiso as a single volume in 1868. Since then, Doré's Divine Comedy has appeared in hundreds of editions. Although he went on to illustrate a great many other literary works, from the Bible to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," Doré is perhaps best remembered for his depictions of Dante. At The World of Dante, art historian Aida Audeh writes:

Characterized by an eclectic mix of Michelangelesque nudes, northern traditions of sublime landscape, and elements of popular culture, Doré's Dante illustrations were considered among his crowning achievements -- a perfect match of the artist's skill and the poet's vivid visual imagination. As one critic wrote in 1861 upon publication of the illustrated Inferno: "we are inclined to believe that the conception and the interpretation come from the same source, that Dante and Gustave Doré are communicating by occult and solemn conversations the secret of this Hell plowed by their souls, traveled, explored by them in every sense."

The scene above is from Canto X of the Inferno. Dante and his guide, Virgil, are passing through the Sixth Circle of Hell, in a place reserved for the souls of heretics, when they look down and see the imposing figure of Farinata degli Uberti, a Tuscan nobleman who had agreed with Epicurus that the soul dies with the body, rising up from an open grave. In the translation by John Ciardi, Dante writes:

My eyes were fixed on him already. Erect,
he rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;
he seemed to hold all Hell in disrespect

Inferno, Canto XVI:

As Dante and Virgil prepare to leave Circle Seven, they are met by the fearsome figure of Geryon, Monster of Fraud. Virgil arranges for Geryon to fly them down to Circle Eight. He climbs onto the monster's back and instructs Dante to do the same.

Then he called out: "Now, Geryon, we are ready:
bear well in mind that his is living weight
and make your circles wide and your flight steady."

As a small ship slides from a beaching or its pier,
backward, backward -- so that monster slipped
back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

he swung about, and stretching out his tail
he worked it like an eel, and with his paws
he gathered in the air, while I turned pale.

Inferno, Canto XXXIV:

In the Ninth Circle of Hell, at the very center of the Earth, Dante and Virgil encounter the gigantic figure of Satan. As Ciardi writes in his commentary:

He is fixed into the ice at the center to which flow all the rivers of guilt; and as he beats his great wings as if to escape, their icy wind only freezes him more surely into the polluted ice. In a grotesque parody of the Trinity, he has three faces, each a different color, and in each mouth he clamps a sinner whom he rips eternally with his teeth. Judas Iscariot is in the central mouth: Brutus and Cassius in the mouths on either side.

 Purgatorio, Canto II:

At dawn on Easter Sunday, Dante and Virgil have just emerged from Hell when they witness The Angel Boatman speeding a new group of souls to the shore of Purgatory.

Then as that bird of heaven closed the distance
between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter
until I could no longer bear the radiance,

and bowed my head. He steered straight for the shore,
his ship so light and swift it drew no water;
it did not seem to sail so much as soar.

Astern stood the great pilot of the Lord,
so fair his blessedness seemed written on him;
and more than a hundred souls were seated forward,

singing as if they raised a single voice
in exitu Israel de Aegypto.
Verse after verse they made the air rejoice.

The angel made the sign of the cross, and they
cast themselves, at his signal, to the shore.
Then, swiftly as he had come, he went away.

 Purgatorio, Canto IV:

The poets begin their laborious climb up the Mount of Purgatory. Partway up the steep path, Dante cries out to Virgil that he needs to rest.

The climb had sapped my last strength when I cried:
"Sweet Father, turn to me: unless you pause
I shall be left here on the mountainside!"

He pointed to a ledge a little ahead
that wound around the whole face of the slope.
"Pull yourself that much higher, my son," he said.

His words so spurred me that I forced myself
to push on after him on hands and knees
until at last my feet were on that shelf.

Purgatorio, Canto XXXI:

Having ascended at last to the Garden of Eden, Dante is immersed in the waters of the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, and helped across by the maiden Matilda. He drinks from the water, which wipes away all memory of sin.

She had drawn me into the stream up to my throat,
and pulling me behind her, she sped on
over the water, light as any boat.

Nearing the sacred bank, I heard her say
in tones so sweet I cannot call them back,
much less describe them here: "Asperges me."

Then the sweet lady took my head between
her open arms, and embracing me, she dipped me
and made me drink the waters that make clean.

Paradiso, Canto V:

In the Second Heaven, the Sphere of Mercury, Dante sees a multitude of glowing souls. In the translation by Allen Mandelbaum, he writes:

As in a fish pool that is calm and clear,
the fish draw close to anything that nears
from outside, it seems to be their fare,
such were the far more than a thousand splendors
I saw approaching us, and each declared:
"Here now is one who will increase our loves."
And even as each shade approached, one saw,
because of the bright radiance it set forth,
the joyousness with which that shade was filled.

Paradiso, Canto XXVIII:

Upon reaching the Ninth Heaven, the Primum Mobile, Dante and his guide Beatrice look upon the sparkling circles of the heavenly host. (The Christian Beatrice, who personifies Divine Love, took over for the pagan Virgil, who personifies Reason, as Dante's guide when he reached the summit of Purgatory.)

And when I turned and my own eyes were met
By what appears within that sphere whenever
one looks intently at its revolution,
I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,
and any star that, seen from the earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.
Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it
when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

Paradiso, Canto XXXI:

In the Empyrean, the highest heaven, Dante is shown the dwelling place of God. It appears in the form of an enormous rose, the petals of which house the souls of the faithful. Around the center, angels fly like bees carrying the nectar of divine love.

So, in the shape of that white Rose, the holy
legion has shown to me -- the host that Christ,
with His own blood, had taken as His bride.
The other host, which, flying, sees and sings
the glory of the One who draws its love,
and that goodness which granted it such glory,
just like a swarm of bees that, at one moment,
enters the flowers and, at another, turns
back to that labor which yields such sweet savor,
descended into that vast flower graced
with many petals, then again rose up
to the eternal dwelling of its love.

You can access a free edition of The Divine Comedy featuring Doré's illustrations at Project Gutenberg. A Yale course on reading Dante in translation appears in the Literature section of our collection of 750 Free Online Courses.

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in October 2013.

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Watch Bauhaus World, a Free Documentary That Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Germany’s Legendary Art, Architecture & Design School

This April 1st marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, the German art school that, though short-lived, launched an entire design movement with a stark, functional aesthetic all its own. It can be tempting, looking into that aesthetic that finds the beauty in industry and the industry in beauty, to regard it as purely a product of its time and place, specifically a 20th-century Europe between the wars searching for ways to invent the future. But as revealed in Bauhaus World, this three-part documentary from German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the legacy of the Bauhaus lives on not just in the reputations of its best known original members — Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, and Josef Albers, among others — but in the currently active creators it continues to inspire in every corner of the Earth.

"What do escalators in Medellín, Arabic lettering in Amman, story-telling furniture from London, urban farming in Detroit and a co-living complex in Tokyo have to do with the Bauhaus?" asks Deutsche Welle's web site. They all draw from "the influence that the philosophy of the Bauhaus movement still exerts on the globalized society of the 21st century," a time that has its societal parallels with the year 1919.

To illustrate those parallels as well as the continuing relevance of Bauhaus teachings, "we meet architects, urban planners, designers and artists from around the globe who, in the spirit of the Bauhaus, want to rethink and change the world." True to its title, Bauhaus World's journey involves a wide variety of countries, and not just European ones: different segments profile the work of Bauhaus-influenced designers everywhere from Mexico to Jordan, Colombia to Israel, the United States to Japan.

It's in Japan, in fact, that the first part of Bauhaus World, "The Code," finds the outer reaches of the spread of Bauhaus that began with the exile of its members from Nazi Germany. The second part, "The Effect," deals with the enduring influence that has turned Bauhaus and its principles from a movement to a brand, one that has potentially done more than its share to make us as design-obsessed as we've become in the 21st century — a century that, the third and final part "The Utopia" considers, may or may not have a place for the original Bauhaus ideals. But whatever Gropius, Klee, Moholy-Nagy, Albers, and the rest would think of what the Bauhaus they created has become over the past hundred years, over the next hundred years more and more designers — emerging from a wider and wider variety of societies and traditions — will come to see themselves as its descendants.

Bauhaus World will be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Obsessive Artists Colorize Old Photographs & Restore the True Colors of the Past

The art of hand-coloring or tinting black and white photographs has been around, the Vox video above explains, since the earliest days of photography itself. “But these didn’t end up looking super realistic,” at least not next to their modern counterparts, created with computers. Digital colorization “has made it possible for artists to reconstruct images with far more accuracy.”

Accuracy, you say? How is it possible to reconstruct color arrangements from the past when they have only been preserved in black and white? Well, this requires research. “You now have a wealth of information,” says Jordan Lloyd, a master digital colorist. “It’s just knowing where to look.”

Historical advertisements, diaries, documents, and the assessments of historians and ethnographers, among other resources, provide enough data for a realistic approximation. Some conjecture is involved, but when you see the amount of research that goes into determining the colors of the past, you will most surely be impressed.

This isn’t playing with filters and settings in Photoshop until the images look good—it’s using software to recreate what scholarship uncovers, the kind of digging that turns up important historical facts such as the original red-on-black logo of 7Up, or the fact that the Eiffel tower was painted a color called “Venetian red” during its construction.

Unless we know this color history, we might be inclined to think colorized photographs that get it right are wrong. However, the aim of modern colorizers is not only to make the past seem more immediate to us in the present; they also attempt to restore the colors people saw when photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries were taken.

The software may not dictate color, but it still plays an indispensable role in how alive digitally colorized photographs appear. Colorizers first use it to remove blemishes, scratches, and the signs of age. Then they blend hundreds of layers of colors. It’s a little like making a digital oil painting. Human skin can have up to 20 layers of colors, ranging from pinks, to yellows, to blues.

Without “an intuitive understanding of how light works in the atmosphere,” however, these artists would fail to persuade us. Color is produced by light, as we know, and light is conditioned by levels of artificial and natural light blending in a space, by atmospheric conditions and time of day. Different surfaces reflect light differently. Correctly interpreting these conditions in a monochromatic photograph is the key to “achieving photorealism.”

Critics of colorization treat it like a form of vandalism, but as Lloyd points out, the process is not meant to substitute for the original artifacts, but to supplement them. The colorized photos we see in the video and at the links below are of images in the public domain, available to use and reuse for any purpose. Colorization artists have found their purpose in making the past seem far less like a distant country.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Interactive Map of the 2,000+ Sounds Humans Use to Communicate Without Words: Grunts, Sobs, Sighs, Laughs & More

When did language begin? The question is not an easy one to answer. There are no records of the event. “Languages don’t leave fossils," notes the Linguistic Society of America, "and fossil skulls only tell us the overall shape and size of hominid brains, not what the brains could do.” The scant evidence from evolutionary biology does not tell us when early humans first began to use language, only that they could 100,000 years or so ago.

However, the question also depends on what we mean by language. Before the linguistic technologies of grammar and syntax, hominids, like other mammals today and a good number of non-mammals too, had a wordless language that communicated more directly, and more honestly, than any of the thousands of ways to string syllables into sentences.

That language still exists, of course, and those who understand it know when someone is afraid, relieved, frustrated, angry, confused, surprised, embarrassed, or awed, no matter what that someone says. It is a language of feeling—of sighs, grunts, rumbles, moans, whistles, sniffs, laughs, sobs, and so forth. Researchers call them “vocal bursts” and as any long-suffering married couple can tell you, they communicate a whole range of specific feelings.

“Emotional expressions,” says UC Berkeley psychology graduate student Alan Cowen, “color our social interactions with spirited declarations of our inner feeling that are difficult to fake, and that our friends, co-workers and loved ones rely on to decipher our true commitments.“ Cowen and his colleagues devised a study to test the range of emotion vocal bursts can carry.

The researchers asked 56 people, reports Discover magazine, “some professional actors and some not, to react to different emotional scenarios” in recordings. Next, they played the recordings for over a 1,000 people, who rated “the vocalizations based on the emotions and tone (positive or negative) they thought the clips conveyed.”

The researchers found that “vocal bursts convey at least 24 distinct kinds of emotions.” They plotted those feelings on a colorful interactive map, publicly available online. "The team says it could be useful in helping robotic devices better pin down human emotions,” Discover writes. “It could also be handy in clinical settings, helping patients who struggle with emotional processing.” The study only recorded vocalizations from English speakers, and "the results would undoubtedly vary if people from other countries or who spoke other languages were surveyed.”

But this limitation does not undermine another implication of the study: that human language consists of far more than just words, and that vocal bursts, which we likely share with a wide swath of the animal kingdom, are not only, perhaps, an original language but also one that continues to communicate the things we can’t or won’t say to each other. Read the study here and see the interactive vocal burst map here.

via MetaFilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Jimi Hendrix Arrives in London in 1966, Asks to Get Onstage with Cream, and Blows Eric Clapton Away: “You Never Told Me He Was That F-ing Good”

Jimi Hendrix arrived on the London scene like a ton of bricks in 1966, smashing every British blues guitarist to pieces the instant they saw him play. As vocalist Terry Reid tells it, when Hendrix played his first showcase at the Bag O’Nails, arranged by Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler, “there were guitar players weeping. They had to mop the floor up. He was piling it on, solo after solo. I could see everyone’s fillings falling out. When he finished, it was silence. Nobody knew what to do. Everybody was dumbstruck, completely in shock.”

He only exaggerates a little, by all accounts, and when Reid says “everybody,” he means everybody: Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, The Who, Eric Burdon, John Mayall, and maybe Jimmy Page, though he denies it. Mayall recalls, “the buzz was out before Jimi had even been seen here, so people were anticipating his performance, and he more than lived up to what we were expecting.” In fact, even before this legendary event sent nearly every star classic rock guitarist back to the woodshed, Jimi had arrived unannounced at the Regent Street Polytechnic, and asked to sit in and jam with Cream, where he proceeded to dethrone the reigning British guitar god, Eric Clapton.

Nobody knew who he was, but “in those days anybody could get up with anybody,” Clapton says in a recent interview, “if you were convincing enough that you could play. He got up and blew everyone’s mind.” As Hendrix biographer Charles Cross tells it, “no one had ever asked to jam” with Cream before. “Most would have been too intimidated by their reputation as the best band in Britain.” To hear the story as it’s told in the clip above from the BBC documentary Seven Ages of Rock, no one else would have ever dared to get onstage with Eric Clapton. Clapton, as the famed graffiti in London announced, was God. “It was a very brave person who would do that,” says Jack Bruce.

Actually, it was Chandler who asked the band, and who also tried to prepare Clapton. Jimi got onstage, plugged into Bruce’s bass amp, and played a version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor.” Everyone was “completely gobsmacked,” Clapton writes in his autobiography. “I remember thinking that here was a force to be reckoned with. It scared me, because he was clearly going to be a huge star, and just as we are finding our own speed, here was the real thing.” Fear, envy, awe… all reasonable emotions when standing next to Jimi Hendrix as he tears through “Killin’ Floor” three times faster than anyone else played it (as you can see him play it in Stockholm above)—while doing the splits, lying on the floor, playing with his teeth and behind his head…

“It was amazing,” writes Clapton, "and it was musically great, too, not just pyrotechnics.” There’s no telling how Jimi might have remembered the event had he lived to write his memoirs, but he would have been pretty modest, as was his way. No one else who saw him felt any need to hold back. “It must have been difficult for Eric to handle,” says Bruce, “because [Eric] was ‘God,’” and this unknown person comes along, and burns.” He puts it slightly differently at the top: “Eric was a guitar player. Jimi was some sort of force of nature.”

Rock journalist Keith Altham has yet a third account, as Ed Vulliamy writes at The Guardian. He remembers “Chandler going backstage after Clapton left in the middle of the song ‘which he had yet to master himself’; Clapton was furiously puffing on a cigarette and telling Chas: ‘You never told me he was that fucking good.’" Who knows if Hendrix knew Clapton had struggled with “Killin’ Floor” and decided not to try it live. But as blues guitarist Stephen Dale Petit notes, “when Chas invited Jimi to London, Jimi did not ask about money or contracts. He asked if Chas would introduce him to Beck and Clapton.”

He had come to meet, and blow away, his rock heroes. “Two weeks after The Bag O’Nails,” writes Classic Rock’s Johnny Black, “when Cream appeared at The Marquee Club, Clapton was sporting a frizzy perm and he left his guitar feeding back against the amp, just as he’d seen Jimi do.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A New Collection of Official, Authorized Prince GIFs!

Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash, podcaster, music historian, and advisor to the Obama White House’s Office of Digital Strategy, knows his way around Prince’s catalogue.

Less than a year after the iconoclastic musician left the planet, Dash created a guide to help newbies and casual listeners become better acquainted with his oeuvre:

The nice thing about Prince’s work is that there are no bad starting points; if you don’t like what you hear at first, he almost certainly made a song in the complete opposite style as well.

He assembled playlists for the Prince-resistant, reeling ‘em in by catering to various tastes, from “riff-driven rock tracks” and electronica to “Prince for Redbone fans.”

(Those playlists are also a great service to those of us whose attention wandered in the decades following Prince’s 80’s heyday.)

Dash’s latest contribution to the Purple One’s enduring legacy is an official archive of high-quality Prince GIFs, taken from his music videos.

Prince was notoriously protective of his image, and wild as it is, the GIF archive, a collaboration with GIPHY, Paisley Park and Prince’s estate, colors within those lines by steering clear of unflattering reaction shots culled from interviews, live performances, or public appearances.

There’s still a broad range of attitudes on display, though best get out of line if you’re looking for an expression that conveys “lack of confidence” or “the opposite of sexy.”

The archive is arranged by album. Click on a song title and you’ll find a number of moments drawn from its official music video.

Any captions come straight from the horse’s mouth. No backseat caption jockeys can has cheezburger with Prince Rogers Nelson’s image, thank you very much.

Begin your explorations of the Prince GIF Archive here.

via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday always stood at the back of the line, a smile beneath her nose. Ayun is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Famous Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci Celebrated in a New Series of Stamps

No special occasion is required to celebrate Leonardo da Vinci, but the fact that he died in 1519 makes this year a particularly suitable time to look back at his vast, innovative, and influential body of work. Just last month, "Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing" opened in twelve museums across the United Kingdom. "144 of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection are displayed in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK," says the exhibition's site, with each venue's drawings "selected to reflect the full range of Leonardo's interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany."

The Royal Collection Trust, writes Artnet's Sarah Cascone, has even "sent a dozen drawings from Windsor Castle to each of the 12 participating institutions." They'd previously been in Windsor Castle's Print Room, the home of a collection of old master prints and drawings routinely described as one of the finest in the world.

Now displayed at institutions like Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, Sheffield's Millennium Gallery, Belfast's Ulster Museum, and Cardiff's National Museum Wales, this selection of Leonardo's drawings will be much more accessible to the public during the exhibition than before.

But the Royal Mail has made sure that the drawings will be even more widely seen, doing its part for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's death by issuing them in stamp form.

"The stamps depict several well-known works," writes Artnet's Kate Brown, "such as The skull sectioned (1489) and The head of Leda (1505–08), a study for his eventual painting of the myth of Leda, the queen of Sparta, which was the most valuable work in Leonardo’s estate when he died and was apparently destroyed around 1700. Other stamps show the artist’s studies of skeletons, joints, and cats."

While none of these images enjoy quite the cultural profile of a Vitruvian Man, let alone a Mona Lisa, they all show that whatever Leonardo drew, he drew it in a way revealing that he saw it like no one else did (possibly due in part, as we've previously posted about here on Open Culture, to an eye disorder).

Though that may come across more clearly at the scale of the originals than at the scale of postage stamps, even a glimpse at the intellectually boundless Renaissance polymath's drawings compressed into 21-by-24-millimeter squares will surely be enough to draw many into his still-inspirational artistic and scientific world. To the intrigued, may we suggest plunging into his 570 pages of notebooks?

Note: If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, consider attending the new course--The Genius of Leonardo da Vinci: A 500th Anniversary Celebration--being offered through Stanford Continuing Studies. Registration opens on February 25. The class runs from April 16 through June 4.

via Colossal/Artnet

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Telecaster Made Out of 1200 Colored Pencils

A couple weeks back, Burls Art dared to make a Stratocaster out of 1200 Crayola colored pencils. Now comes a Telecaster-style guitar, which Fender first put into production back in 1950. You can watch it get made, from start to finish, in the 11-minute video above.

On a more serious note, anyone interested in the history of the electric guitar--particularly the Strat, Tele and Les Paul--should spend time with the new book by Ian S. Port, The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll. It offers a pretty rich and lively account of the inventors and instruments who created a new modern sound. If interested, you can get The Birth of Loud as a free audiobook if you sign up for Audible.com's free trial program. Find details on that here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant begins with an immersive depiction of what it might have been like to live in a European village during the middle ages. Or what it might feel like for us moderns, at least. The couple at the center of the story spends several pages fretting over the loss of a candle, their only one. Without it, their nights are pitch black. In the day, they wander in a fog, unable to remember anything. Though the cause of this turns out to be dark magic, one can’t help thinking that a smartphone would immediately solve all their problems.

This was a time not only before mobile video, but when images of any kind were scarce, when every book was painstakingly copied by hand in careful, elegant script. Many of those rare, scribal copies were not illustrated, they were “illuminated.” Their pages shone out into the darkness and fog. Most of the population could not read them, but they could, in rare instances when they might catch a glimpse, be deeply moved by the colorful, stylized images and lettering.

For the intellectual classes, illumination constituted a language of its own, framing and interpreting medical, classical, and legal texts, gospels and works by the church fathers. Not all books received this treatment but the “most luxurious,” notes the British Library, were “literally ‘lit up’ by decorations and pictures in brightly coloured pigments and burnished gold leaf.” For centuries, despite the explosion of image-making technologies of every kind, most of us, unless we were scholars or aristocrats, were in the same position vis-à-vis these stunning artifacts as the average medieval peasant. Medieval manuscripts were locked away in rare book rooms and seen by very few.

The situation has changed dramatically as libraries digitize their holdings. Last November, hundreds more rare, valuable medieval manuscripts became available to everyone when the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France launched a joint project, making “800 manuscripts decorated before the year 1200 available freely” online, as the BL blog announced in 2016. Both institutions provided 400 manuscripts each for digitization. Some of these are currently on display at the wildly popular, sold-out British Library exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Now they are also virtual public property, as it were, thanks to a grant from the Polonsky Foundation.

That these fragile artifacts have been so inaccessible, kept under glass and well away from insects, thieves, and vandals, now means they are in a condition to be digitally copied and uploaded in high resolution for close viewing, comparison, and careful study. Medievalists.net describes the complementary websites the two libraries have launched:

The first, France-England: medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200, has been created by the Bibliothèque nationale de France based on the Gallica marque blanche infrastructure, using the IIIF standard and Mirador viewer to make the images held by the different institutions interoperable and enable them to be compared side-by-side within the same digital library or annotated. The second website, Medieval England and France, 700-1200, is aimed at a wider public audience, and has been developed by the British Library to showcase a selection of manuscripts as well as articles, essays and video clips.

The French site has ports of entry according to theme, author, place, and century, and many links to resources for scholars. The British Library site features curated selections, introduced by accessible articles. Laypeople with little experience studying medieval manuscripts can learn about legal, medical, and musical texts, see how the writings of the church fathers received special attention in monastic culture, and learn how manuscripts circulated before 1200. Those who know what they are looking for can conduct advanced searches at the Medieval Manuscripts site, and download a full list of all 800 manuscripts here.

Related Content:

How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

Behold the Beautiful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketchbook: A Window Into How Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made (1494)

Behold 3,000 Digitized Manuscripts from the Bibliotheca Palatina: The Mother of All Medieval Libraries Is Getting Reconstructed Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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