MAGICAL MINIATURES at Catharijne Convent Museum, Utrecht

Naughty monkeys, sweet unicorns, fantastic beasts, lovely princesses, battling knights and beautiful flowers: welcome to the magical world of medieval manuscripts. The Museum Catharijne Convent casts a spell on visitors with this exhibition.

On entering, an introductory video explains more about the exhibited illuminated manuscripts. Most of these are from the collection of the Dutch KB, the National Library. But over fifteen institutions helped create this splendid exhibition. So visitors have a rare chance to look at manuscripts which are usually stored and peered over by specialists only.

All the manuscripts in the exhibition were created in the Southern Netherlands. Often, it is not known who worked on them. Though in some cases, names were handed down. These include Flemish miniaturists like Simon Marmion, Lieven van Lathem, Willem Vrelant and Simon Bening.

The earliest examples date from the 10th century. The most ‘modern’ ones from the 16th century. By then, printed books which took less time to create and were cheaper, started to cater to an increasing number of readers.

The sumptuous manuscripts were often created at monasteries and convents. One of the last rooms in this exhibition explains how. Several talented people might be needed to create just one stunning page. Small wonder, pages were later cut out of manuscripts to be sold to wealthy collectors.

The manuscripts were used in churches, monasteries, nunneries and by wealthy private persons. As a manuscript might take years to complete, these were expensive and cherished possessions. They were handed down from generation to generation.

Of course, private owners who commissioned such works belonged to the very rich. Such patrons included the wealthy Burgundian and German dukes. No simple miniatures for them. Gold, lapis lazuli and other costly materials were used. The richer the aristocracy became, the more stunning their manuscripts.

Though manuscripts were created by monks and talented craftsmen, not all the manuscripts contain religious stories, describe lives of saints, are books of hours or Bibles. There are myths and Arthurian legends, including an early Dutch one about Sir Gawain and a flying chess-board. There are Chronicles with battle scenes; medical texts on herbs; illustrated travel manuals describing fantastic (fictional) countries and their people, plants, beasts. J.K. Rowling’s ‘Magical Beasts’ is not far from one’s mind.

Throughout the exhibition, adults and children have a chance to created their own ‘manuscripts’. There are plenty videos going into aspects of the exhibited manuscripts. In the last exhibition room, one can browse a facsimile manuscript and smell and listen to manuscripts. The museum also offers regular workshops, guided tours, lectures and a prize draw; but most of these activities are aimed at Dutch visitors.

Want to be enchanted too? Love to come across unicorns and other mythical beasts, or meet dangerous knights and aristocratic ladies? The exhibition ‘Magical Miniatures’ will weave its spell till the third of June 2018.     Kate Den    29th March 2018


Zuid-Nederlandse miniatuurkunst“, written by A.M. W. As-Vijvers and A.S. Korteweg, published by WBook and costing € 39.95, accompanies this wonderful exhibition.


Photos courtesy Museum Catharijne Convent and KB; photographer Jos Uljee