The “Gold” exhibition presents 50 objects from 20 centuries, showing the universal desire to adorn precious words with precious metal.

Did you read Little Golden Books when you were a kid? Favorite stories and colorful illustrations, securely bound with shiny gold spines, were treasures.

This connection between precious stories and the precious metal is almost as old as the written word, as a new British Library exhibition demonstrates with dazzling scale. Gold (May 20-October 2, 2022) includes 50 manuscripts and books from 20 centuries and 17 languages, all literate, illuminated, illustrated and/or bound in gold.

Craftsmanship, dedication and luxury

Adding gold to the written word has never been simple or inexpensive. The objects on display at the British Library testify to the value of words to the artist, the donor or patron, and the possessor. The gold used is not colored paint, but the real precious metal, painstakingly applied in thin sheets (gold leaf) or in powder form (called shell gold, because the powder was stored in shells) or hammered and shaped into bindings. Those who worked gold in this way were the most skilled craftsmen of their time, as mistakes were prohibitively expensive.

With gold, the page comes to life, catches the light and even seems to diffuse it. We call richly decorated medieval manuscripts “illuminated” – illuminated – precisely because of their abundant use of gold.

Golden words of faith

Some of mankind’s most precious texts are words of sacred scriptures and prayers. Although all objects included in Gold are religious in nature, many are — and they represent texts from 5 major world religions. Here’s a taste of the riches of Christian tradition that visitors will see at the British Library.

Harley’s Golden Gospels

The Golden Gospels of Harley. Carolingian Empire, c. 800.

Copies of the four Gospels were prized by Catholic nobility before printed Bibles became available. This stunning manuscript, entirely handwritten and decorated in gold, is traditionally associated with Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Great (Charlemagne). It is believed to have been made at the court of Charlemagne in Aachen between 800 and 814. Can you imagine the firmness of hand it would have taken to produce these beautifully formed letters with such delicate backing as gold?

Prayer books fit for a queen

Another prized part of the Bible for personal use was the Book of Psalms. Collections of psalms, called psalters, were often made as gifts for high-ranking women. Gold has two.

the Psalter of Queen Mary, given as a gift to the Catholic Tudor Queen Mary I, is one of the most richly illuminated manuscripts in the world. It features more than 1,000 finely rendered illustrations, which scholars believe were the work of an anonymous 14th-century artist.

Queen Mary's Psalter
Queen Mary’s Psalter. London, early 14th century.

the Psalter of Queen Melisande, which features large illuminated golden capital letters, was produced at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem between 1131-1143. This is an ancient cross manuscript, commissioned by Melisande who, together with her husband, Fulke V of Anjou, reigned as queen of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. Melisande, a Frankish princess, became a warrior queen, patron of the arts, and founder of an abbey in Bethany.

The Psalters were the precursor to Books of Hours, illuminated collections of prayers and psalms with which lay people could participate in daily prayer similar to that of monks and nuns.

The Benedictionary of St. Aethelwold

If you have attended a confirmation or ordination celebration, you have seen an acolyte or the master of ceremonies hold an open book for the bishop as he gives his episcopal blessing. Bishops also had these books in 10th century England, but they were handwritten in Latin. This belonged to St. Aethelwold, the Bishop of Winchester. And we know who wrote and illustrated it so beautifully for him too, because the craftsman left a note in the book:

A bishop, the great Æthelwold, whom the Lord had made patron of Winchester, commanded a certain monk subject to him to write the present book…He also commanded to make in this book many well-ornamented frames filled with various figures decorated with many beautiful colors and with gold… May all who look at this book always pray that after the end of the flesh I may dwell in heaven – Godeman the scribe, pleadingly, fervently asks.

When we look at this beautiful illustration of the angel greeting the women at the Benedictional tomb of St. Aethelwold, let us pray for dear Godeman the scribe!

A real “little golden book”

A small belt book with a gold binding England circa 1540.

This little beauty is known as the “Belt Book” – a miniature prayer book designed to be worn on a ribbon or chain hanging from the waist. It has a pierced gold hinged lid with a clasp and loops for threading from the belt.

English-made Tudor, this little guest book was long known as Anne Boleyn’s Prayer Book, perhaps because it contains a miniature portrait of King Henry VIII. According to legend, the ill-fated queen passed the prayer book to one of her ladies-in-waiting as she made her way to the gallows to be beheaded by a swordsman. Whether the association is true or not, the little gold belt book full of psalms is an enduring treasure.

Dig for more gold

There’s a lot more to explore in the British Library Gold exposure. Visit the website to find out how to see the show in person this summer or to participate in online events.


About Joey J. Hott

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