artist book: a work of art realized in the form of a book.
The definition may sound simple, but the world of artist books can be a bewildering place. From the familiar pairing of images and text, to sculptures created out of paper and complicated bindings that create a performance each time the book is opened, nearly anything can be called an artist book if there is intention and consideration. This series showcases artists from different realms of the art world exploring the structure and meaning of the book.
While contemporary art books are typically created for aesthetic and conceptual purposes, historically, books have held a utilitarian purpose. Consequently, book illustration is typically perceived as a low art. However, there has been one exception to this stereotype that has upheld its standing throughout the centuries—the illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval period. These illuminations have always been held in the highest regard; in fact, a discussion of the history of Medieval art would be incomplete if this art form was overlooked.
Aesthetically speaking, the rather simplistic realist renderings and extensive use of gold leaf has left Medieval art as a rather unpopular interval in history—a period of 1,000 years that is sandwiched between the celebrated work of the Romans and the Renaissance masters. However, while on a recent visit to the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo in Toledo, Spain, I found myself completely lost in the beauty of a Medieval codex. While throngs of crowds were clamoring to take selfies with the Monstrance of Arfe, a ten-foot tall sculpture of gold, silver and jewels, I was quietly studying the Bible of Saint Louis. Created for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234 in Paris, the bible is a set of three volumes that contains selections from both the Old and the New Testament and was designed to teach each story’s moral significance.
From a purely artistic standpoint, the texts are an incredible example of work from this time period. The illuminations were painted onto pages of treated calfskin and feature backgrounds of burnished gold with illustrations in a wide variety of colors for the period. Most pages are designed with an eight-medallion page layout that features two columns. Meant to be read vertically, the medallions and corresponding text should be viewed from top to bottom, left to right. Thus in the first column, the top medallion tells an Old Testament story and the medallion directly underneath it teaches a parallel story from the New Testament. While the overall size of each page is fairly large, every medallion is slightly less than three inches in diameter. Each one of these small circles possesses a complete narrative that features multiple characters set within a landscape, and on occasion two-part scenes. The extraordinary detail and embellishment of these miniature works is superb. While the workshop is unknown, it is evident that some of the best Parisian scribes of the era painstakingly created this work for the King.
Experiencing this book firsthand has helped to change my perception of Medieval codices. While I still have no interest in the subject from a theological standpoint, I cannot help but be astounded by the amount of time and effort that went into undertaking this project. The delicate beauty of this particular text provided a far richer experience than I could have ever anticipated. So if you’re looking for an experience that is perhaps the antithesis of our contemporary aesthetic, perhaps it’s time to visit your local art museum and see what they have to offer in terms of medieval and antiquated texts. You might be pleasantly surprised; I know that I was.
For a more in-depth view of the Bible of Saint Louis, the site produced by M. Moleiro offers a video about the original text along with excellent image reproductions of the bible.
Elizabeth K. Harris is the Director at Louis K. Meisel Gallery. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University and has co-authored two books on art. She likes looking at books more than reading them.