The Dark Ages Go Digital

Time is running out to see the Blanton’s exhibition The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece, before it closes April 3! This centuries-old illuminated manuscript was likely made for France’s King Louis IX (aka Saint Louis) in the 13th century, and is remarkable for its journey throughout the centuries, changing hands multiple times and inscriptions in three languages added to the pages.

Woman using ipad in Crusader Bible exhibition

With brilliantly colored illustrations attributed to seven anonymous artists, the Crusader Bible is the antithesis to today’s digital age—but that doesn’t mean that technology hasn’t caught up with this manuscript! In one section of the exhibition, pick up an iPad and hold it over any set of pages in the gallery you’re standing in—the English translations of each inscription will automatically appear and hover over the real ones. It’s a fun piece of technology, but in addition to seeing this incredible document in person, we’ve rounded up ways to also experience it online.

First, get an up close and personal look at some of the incredible illustrations via the Morgan Library’s digitized version of each folio. Starting with thumbnails of each of the pages, click on any that catch your eye—you can zoom in on the colorful illustrations to see the minute details, like blood on the horses’ flanks from their riders’ spurs.

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Maybe you’re wondering how these works of art were made back in the really olden days.—and how did they last so long, when it seems like paperbacks from the modern age tend to fall apart after only a few years?

Medieval books were created by hand by skilled artisans and craftsmen with painstaking precision, using materials found in nature. To see an overview of the illuminated manuscript process from beginning to end, check out a six-minute video from the J. Paul Getty Museum, showing how animal skins were used to make parchment, how quills and ink were created, and how scribes—usually monks—copied the text to make books. It goes on to detail the process of adding in the beautiful color illustrations (called “illumination”), and finally demonstrating how the books were bound and their covers decorated, sometimes with precious metals or jewels.

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When you visit the Blanton’s presentation of the Crusader Bible, each of the pages, or folios, is laid out individually; this is the last time the public will be able to see individual pages before the manuscript will be rebound at the Morgan Library. In addition, a special room in the exhibition shows many of the tools and pigments that scribes and artists used to make such books, from the precious blue of lapis lazuli to malachite, know for its sage green color. In this section, visitors are invited to touch the various types of animal skins that were used to make the parchment—you can feel the difference between treated and untreated calfskin.

Seen the show and still want more? If you’re truly mad about the Middle Ages, the Khan Academy has a free online course called “Art of Medieval Europe” that includes a series of short articles and videos on Medieval manuscripts. It’s a great resource to supplement your trip to the exhibition.

The Crusader Bible: A Gothic Masterpiece features over forty unbound pages from the one of the most celebrated French illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The last day to view the exhibition is Sunday, April 3.

Rebecca Johnson is a volunteer blogger for the Blanton, and editor of McDonald Observatory’s StarDate magazine.

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