The Cambridge Illuminations, the Fitzwilliam Museum’s exhibition of mediaeval manuscripts, wasn’t very crowded when I visited last Sunday. The show comprises principally images of devotion, damnation and prayer, conceived and produced by men devoted to poverty, chastity and obedience.
That background seems to put a lot of people off. Poverty, chastity and obedience …how much more remote from present-day values can you get? And yet, on closer inspection, The Cambridge Illuminations turns out to be a kind of miracle — a breathtaking collection of stupendous paintings that will delight anyone who loves beautiful things. The art here is not only gorgeous, and executed with an exquisite delicacy rarely equalled anywhere; it is also much less alien than might be expected. Pages intended to intensify religious contemplation have, in their margins, depictions of a man fighting a colossal snail; an ape-doctor solemnly diagnosing a bemused bear-patient; and a lady deciding whether to choose as her lover an elegantly attired knight on horseback or a wild, elemental ‘nature man’ from the forest.
Mediaeval piety was concerned with sin, death and damnation — but laughter never seems to have been far from its surface. The twisting tangles of bodies, monsters and dragons which decorate many of the pages on show here are often given comical touches: a tentacular plant sprouts from Abel’s mouth, for instance, slithering across the page before coming back to Abel and terminating in a duck; demons are imprisoned by the curlicues which emerge from their claws or wings; men are depicted literally talking through their own arses. Even the mystical union of Christ and the Church can be given an unexpected edge: in one illustration symbolising that union, a bride and groom are shown embracing. The bride’s hand grips the groom’s wrist, apparently to prevent his hand from groping too far….