A mysterious manuscript in Liège: Dr. Elizabeth L’Estrange and 3rd year student Holly Wain on their recent research collaboration

Each year, the University’s College of Arts and Law offers a number of Undergraduate Research Scholarships, which give successful UGs the opportunity to collaborate with academics on bona fide research projects for five weeks during the summer vacation. This year, Holly Wain, a 3rd year art historian, successfully obtained one of these scholarships to work with our very own Liz L’Estrange on a project about a little-studied sixteenth-century Book of Hours, kept at the University of Liège. Here, Liz tells us more about “Wittert MS 29” and her project, before Holly shares her experiences of doing “real art history”! 

I was really pleased to be granted the Undergraduate Scholarship and to be able to ‘employ’ Holly for the summer. We worked on a Book of Hours – a popular late medieval book of prayers and liturgical offices – that I had discovered in the University of Liège Library in Belgium (Wittert MS 29). As the manuscript hasn’t been studied by anyone before, I was basically starting from scratch. The ten miniatures it contains are very similar to others produced in France in the 1520s, yet the frames around them look like they date from a later period; moreover, the manuscript is a hotchpotch of different hands with some rather dodgy Latin! Part of my aim in studying the manuscript is to find out how its miniatures relate to other already-known manuscripts, where it might fit into mid-sixteenth century workshop production, and how it came to exist in the form it does today.

Some details from the illuminations in Wittert MS 29

All this has made for a really exciting project – rather like a detective story – but it also has also meant doing quite a lot of ground work to understand the complex nature of the manuscript. Therefore, it was a real bonus to have Holly working with me for five weeks as it meant we could share out the tasks and follow up various lines of enquiry. One of the aspects I asked Holly to work on in particular was the links between the manuscript’s elaborate borders and the art produced by Italian artists like Rosso and Primaticcio at Francis I’s chateau of Fontainebleau in the 1530s and 1540s. Holly proved a very diligent researcher and came up with all sorts of possible links between manuscripts as well as finding printed and painted examples that all helped to build up a field in which to situate this Book of Hours.

I felt it was really important for Holly to come to Liège to see the Book of Hours for herself, as undergraduate students rarely get the opportunity to see, let alone handle, rare books and manuscripts. Getting up close and personal to a medieval manuscript is always a privilege because you are handling something that has passed through so many hands. It is also often a revelation because it is only by handling a manuscript that it becomes possible to appreciate the work that has gone into its production – not simply the extremely finely painted images but also the handwritten text and the binding.

The mystery of this manuscript is not yet solved but my research has advanced considerably thanks to Holly’s input. Enthusing about such a precise area of my own research to an undergraduate researcher was also an interesting experience for me, because it involved some self-reflection including thinking about how to convey quite specific information about medieval manuscripts and taking a step back from the minutiae to consider about the broader importance of the research topic itself. However, I now realise that I should also have explained that interesting Belgian town names do not necessarily make for the best tourist attractions (see below)!

Elizabeth’s research on Liège, Bibliothèque Universitaire, Wittert MS 29 will appear in Reinventing Traditions – On the Transmission of Artistic Patterns in Late Medieval Manuscript Illumination, ed. by Christine Seidel and Joris Heyder (Quarternio Verlag Luzern, forthcoming 2013)

Holly’s involvement with Liz’s project involved a trip to Belgium to study the manuscript in the real, and several days spent pouring over books and manuscripts in various libraries in Belgium and France. Art history in the field, though, isn’t all about just hard work, as Holly tells us below…

Traditional Belgian fare

Last summer I applied to and, to my surprise and delight, was awarded an Undergraduate Research Scholarship to work with Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange on a project titled ‘Manuscript Illumination and Sixteenth-Century Franco-Flemish Art’, which focuses on a little-known Book of Hours dating that is housed at the University of Liège. I was so happy to get the scholarship, and everyone else in my year who had applied for it was so pleased for me. I had studied Liz’s module on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art in my second year so I had a growing interest in this area and with my year abroad in Poitiers looming I thought it would be great for both my art history and my French. Despite all the advantages, however, I was still quite nervous to begin the research! The project was my first taste of professional research and I didn’t know if I would be up to the task.  As I look back now I realise how much I have learned about professional research in comparison to undergraduate work. In the first few days of the project I was putting pressure on myself to “solve the mystery” of the manuscript!… As I later found out, proper academic research is a much longer process than that.

In the first week I did some general research to get to grips with the manuscript illumination, its history and so on. Then I worked on compiling my own bibliographies and finding comparisons with the Liège manuscript in terms of its miniatures, the script and its binding. I found the research process really interesting; analysing images, finding similarities and then tracing the leads to identify trends. I felt like I had gained a good grasp of the predominant styles and active workshops at the time when the Liège Hours was made. In the middle of the five week period I got to see the book in the flesh: Liz had arranged funding for me to travel to Belgium and work with her there to advance the project. I met Liz at the train station in Liège, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and the next day we went to the University library, just over the bridge from the hostel where I was staying, so I managed to not get lost and was on time to meet Liz outside the very impressive building. Liz showed me to the room where we would be working for the day and introduced me to her colleague Cécile Oger who was also working on the project. There was a lot of French flying around the room! I found it really interesting, and although my French at that point was not quite up to the standard required for in-depth art historical analysis, Liz and Cécile really made me feel part of the project. It felt great to be in a team working at such a high level.

Gare de Guillemins, Liege
University of Liège

I had travelled to Liège with a friend from home who studies Fine Art in Reading so we got to explore some of Belgium in between working. At the weekend we had the great idea that instead of travelling miles to a big town like Antwerp, we would get to see loads more if we took the train to the towns around Liège. On Friday night we researched on the Hostel’s computer places such as Verviers and Pepinster (if I remember correctly I think we chose this town solely because we found the name amusing – I blame the lovely fruit beer for these decisions!). We went to bed extremely happy with ourselves and our plan… this did not last long. We arrived in Pepinster and our first words were ‘Oh, is this street it?!’ It was a very small place but we made the most of it and had some chips and mayonnaise. ‘Surely there will be more to see in Verviers?’, I said optimistically, but with a tinge of desperation. Unfortunately there wasn’t. So we headed back to Liège and went to Le Grand Curtuis, an art museum in the centre of town whose collection, ranging from ancient Egypt to the middle ages, made up for our lack of art during the morning.

Royal Library, Brussels

On Sunday we travelled to Brussels and the next day I met Liz at the Royal Library. The building was extremely impressive and after the long process of obtaining a reader’s card we were let into the manuscript reading rooms. Liz left me to find certain books we had on our bibliographies so I was able to practice my French as the system there takes a while to work out! The experience of travelling to Belgium gave me a real insight into the work Liz does. I got to meet researchers in the field, work alongside Liz in important research libraries, practice my French in the professional art history world and of course my unforgettable trips to the towns of Pepinster and Verviers.

On my return I worked for two more weeks on the scholarship. I spent one week following up the links between the manuscript and printed manuscripts of the period and the other was spent doing in-depth image analysis. I found the last week really interesting and so different to undergraduate research. I had the time to really study every stroke made by the artist who worked on the miniatures in the Book of Hours and I compiled certain facial types that reappeared  in the manuscript as well as certain techniques of shading. I then compared these to the Books of Hours of Henri II and Anne of Austria that were in a similar style and by doing so I was able to group together certain elements in the three manuscripts to gain an idea about the different hands involved in their production.

The end of the five weeks was not, however, the end of my involvement in the project. In September Liz invited me to Paris to be part of a meeting/workshop to discuss the manuscript with two scholars in the field. I had moved into my house in Poitiers in August and after the horrendous administration process in a French university, I welcomed a break in Paris with open arms! I met Liz at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France along with Cécile. After a lovely Parisian lunch we met some of the scholars with whom Liz is working at the Bibliothèque nationale. During my researches, I had read articles by these people so to be sat next to them discussing our research in French was very daunting! However, it was great being able to see the discussions that are had between art historians. The next day I met Liz at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. We looked at copies of printed manuscripts that had links to the structure of the pages of the Liège manuscript. I couldn’t believe I was working in the same institution as the great artists of the past! The scholarship has benefited me so much. I gained important research skills over the course of the five weeks and the help that Liz gave me each week over Skype was invaluable. I also got to meet scholars in the field and discuss art history in French on a professional level. It has helped all elements of my degree and on a personal level it has given me the confidence to pursue further research with a Masters after my undergraduate degree. It has opened up the world of professional research to me and Liz has kept me in the loop, such as my visit to Paris. I would definitely recommend everyone studying art history to apply for a scholarship.

École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts


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