Leaves of Gold: Treasures of Manuscript Illumination fron Philadelphia Collections
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BIBLES: Introduction | Gallery Guide
BOOKS OF HOURS: Introduction | Gallery Guide
PSALTERS: Introduction | Gallery Guide
LITURGICAL: Introduction | Gallery Guide
LITERARY: Introduction | Gallery Guide

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Introduction to Literary Manuscripts

PMA Collins 1945-65-1, fol. 5
City of Pagans. La Cite de Dieu by Saint Augustine. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Collins 1945-65-1, fol. 5 (detail)

In addition to devotional texts, wealthy men and women owned elaborately decorated books containing works of secular literature. Often written or translated into French (as opposed to Latin), these manuscripts attest to the rise of lay readership in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The newly literate public desired edifying, entertaining, and visually appealing books. Literature in the form of moralized histories and romances became very popular. These books, when produced for noble readers, were lavishly illuminated. While tradition often determined the images that accompanied the texts of Bibles and Psalters, this did not apply to most literary texts. The artists who executed the miniatures in these books had the opportunity to interpret the written words in a freely imaginative and inventive manner.

Many medieval manuscripts were also designed to meet the professional requirements of doctors, lawyers, and political leaders. These books were frequently written in Latin, the language of law and scholarship. Handbooks for various professions were produced and illuminated to different degrees, depending on the needs and aspirations of the user. The decoration of these manuscripts is often utilitarian, marking significant portions of the text so that the reader could identify the contents at a glance.

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Leaves of Gold is a collaborative exhibition organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries. All materials on this site are copyright 2001 the Philadelphia Museum of Art except as indicated herein.