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Perkinson Shines Light on 15th-century Illuminated Manuscripts

Story posted July 19, 2006

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Stephen Perkinson spent his sabbatical last year in France, and discovered the work of a little-known 15th-century manuscript illuminator.

In the age of Harry Potter and the celebrity author, it's hard to imagine books being created as unique works of art, in a single copy, with the artist unnamed. It certainly makes it more challenging to research the origin of such manuscripts, but Stephen Perkinson, assistant professor of art, is spending the summer doing just that.

While on sabbatical in France last year, Perkinson learned of a 15th-century manuscript illuminator who has been largely ignored by historians because his style was considered "cartoony" compared to the jewel-like realism of his contemporaries.

"People were dismissive of him, but he's really a very good artist," Perkinson says.

"He's deeply aware of all these artistic techniques. His style looks simple, but it's very sophisticated."

The artist is known only as "The Master of Wavrin," named for his principal patron, a mid-level French aristocrat who aspired to own a collection of illustrated works of fiction. Only 10 manuscripts by The Master of Wavrin survive.

Perkinson is interested in examining the images in their historical context. All the texts, written a few years after the Turks took Constantinople, claim to be translations from Greek, Italian and Provenšal. They also claim to be historical, says Perkinson, interweaving actual historical figures from the Crusades.

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Perkinson points out that, while his research brought him to France, Bowdoin's own manuscript collection is the envy of other colleges and universities, and offers Bowdoin students, faculty, and scholars from all over valuable resources with which to work. Among the Bowdoin collections is this 14th-century manuscript: Watriquet de Couvin's Fabliaux divers... (Paris, ca. 1330), a book of secular medieval French poetry. The collections are housed in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives.

"I'm thinking about how the pictures illustrate the text, the implications of why he chose certain moments to illustrate, and what the audience would have thought about them," Perkinson says.

The Master of Wavrin worked for only seven years around 1455, precisely when the printing press was being invented. His books were not printed, but his art - created on paper instead of parchment, using less expensive materials - was much faster to produce than the standard illuminated manuscripts.

"Manuscript illuminators relied on a small clientele of very rich people," Perkinson says. "They were trying to create a more stable market for what they did."

Perkinson is developing his research into a paper to present at an art history conference in February 2007. He hopes to expand that into an article and, eventually, a book. "I want to examine how these pictures illustrate the texts, and how the manuscripts fit into the culture of printing," he says. "What do they tell us about how people understood history?"

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