Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts at Boston College

crucifixion page

crucifixion page

Boston College, Harvard, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have a fantastic three venue cooperative show of an amazing collection of illuminated manuscripts. Everyone in the Boston area should check them out. On Saturday the McMullen Museum at Boston College hosted a wonderful educational program for kids and I took, Benedict, Isabella, and Sophia and we met my friend Carie McGinnis, who is one of the curators at Harvard and who told me about the event.

We got there a bit early and wandered about the exhibit halls, overheard part of a tour that was going on.

The formal part of the day began with a brief tour of the museum. They had stools for the kids to stand on to see the manuscripts that were higher up. At one point the guide pulled out some parchment and papyrus for the kids to feel.

She chose just a few books to look at, didn’t overwhelm the kids too much. Kept the explanations simple (felt a little over-simplified for my kids, but then I’ve done a lot of prep with them talking about manuscripts and medieval life and of course they’re pretty steeped in Catholicism, which the guides can’t assume about kids in the program.) The guide also handed the children some little battery operated votive lights which flicker in imitation of candles so that they could see what the manuscripts looked like with the light dancing on them. This led to children holding their lights up to the books in the cases and exclaiming over the gold leaf that suddenly dazzled.

We settled down in a corner of the farthest gallery and she read the kids one of my favorite picture books, Marguerite Makes a Book, which is a gorgeous story about a French girl in medieval Paris who helps her father finish a prayer book for an important commission when his eyesight fails and his glasses break. The book follows Marguerite as she visits various merchants and craftsmen to obtain the tolls and ingredients she needs to make her paints. Then it describes the process of making paints from eggs and ground up charcoal, parsley, lapis lazuli and other ingredients. The guide had some gold leaf which she brought out for the children to feel and some lapis earrings for them to examine.

story time at the museum

story time at the museum

Listening intently.

Listening intently.

Marguerite Makes a Book

Marguerite Makes a Book

Ben listens to the story.

Ben listens to the story.

Touching real gold leaf

Touching real gold leaf

We looked at a few more books and examined them with the candles and then we went to another room where the kids got to make their own paints, just like Marguerite, and then to paint with them, making their own illuminated pages.

Ben holds his light up to the painting.

Ben holds his light up to the painting.

Bella with candle.

Bella with candle.

This was definitely the best part of the visit. They used all the ingredients that Marguerite used: dried plants, charcoal, lapis. Each kid was given a mortar and pestle to grind up one of the substances into powder. Then an egg yolk was added and they mixed them up and then got to paint with the lumpy goop they’d created. Then the guide explained that Marguerite would have had to grind a lot longer. She had more of the same but ground to a much finer powder and the kids then got to mix that with eggs and paint their own little pages or booklets. There was even a lovely gold paint that shimmered and glittered.

Tansy flowers for yellow pigment.

Tansy flowers for yellow pigment.

Bella grinding lapis

Bella grinding lapis

Bella grinds lapis lazuli

Bella grinds lapis lazuli

Sophie puts tansy into her mortar.

Sophie puts tansy into her mortar.

Ben with mortar and pestle, grinding parsley

Ben with mortar and pestle, grinding parsley

Adding egg yolk to Ben's parsley.

Adding egg yolk to Ben’s parsley.

Mixing paints.

Mixing paints.

Bella painted an illuminated page inspired by one of the pages she’d seen in the gallery. Sophie did three pictures of Mary. Ben painted a house and a stream of rushing water. And I made a little illuminated page of one of my favorite verses. Our friend Carie got to paint a page as well. All of the kids’ pages were lovely. Having truly excellent materials really does make such a difference.

Ben and Sophie painting

Ben and Sophie painting

Ben and Sophie painting.

Ben and Sophie painting.

Ben painting.

Ben painting.

Of course they all wanted to stay and paint for much longer, but we had to clear out to make way for the next bunch of children who were already doing their tour.

We deposited our paintings in the car and went to see the last gallery of manuscripts, including an extremely long scroll that showed the history of the universe from the creation to the author’s present. It was French so focused on French kings and Holy Roman emperors.

I could have lingered longer and spent more time with the books, but such is the lot of the mother of young children, always a tantalizing taste and never a deep draught. Still, an amazing day. But after two back to back museums, I think we need a few days of staying at home.

Bella painting.

Bella painting.

Bella shows off her picture in progress

Bella shows off her picture in progress

On the way there and back we listened to the Silmarillion, which made for a very enjoyable ride. Our trip into Boston was also bookended with a trip to Target for shoes and socks and toilet paper and a trip to CVS for more antibiotics. A very full day indeed.

Bella's and Ben's illuminated pages.

Bella’s and Ben’s illuminated pages.

Sophie's illuminations.

Sophie’s illuminations.

My illumination.

My illumination.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I'd Like an Illuminated Missal, Please - The Wine-Dark Sea - October 20, 2016

    […] Sunday as I sat in Mass and my mind wandered (not during the homily, which was excellent) I had Saturday’s dazzling feast of illuminated manuscripts fresh in my memory when my eyes fell on the missalette: dull newsprint pages with boring type, no […]

  2. Learning About Perspective and Belgian Landscapes at Boston College - The Wine-Dark Sea - November 25, 2017

    […] Last fall the McMullen Museum at Boston College hosted a beautiful exhibit of illuminated manuscript… Bella, Sophie, Ben, and I loved that class and the opportunity to grind pigments and paint with homemade inks. So when I got an email from them telling me about a new series of art classes this fall, I was quite excited. […]

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