Medieval and Renaissance Interiors

Late medieval manuscripts are filled with lovely interiors. New book by Eva Oledzka delights in showing off the decorative details and explain the stories behind

Medieval and Renaissance Interiors in Illuminated Manuscripts
By Eva Oledzka
British Library 2016

REVIEWThe Medieval and Renaissance Interior

Afficionadas of Medieval Illuminations are natural fans of the Medieval Manuscripts Blog because of all the quirky and fine details in the fabulous manuscripts held in this invaluable collection, which curators point out on a nearly daily basis.

Lately, the British Library has published thematic books such as on sea monsters, women etc. Recently these have been followed by a lovely book on Medieval and Renaissance Interiors. Written by Eva Oledzka, currently librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford, she wrote her thesis on late medieval representations of architecture, domestic interiors and material culture. It is this ground work, which she now shares with us.

Background here is that in that late medieval domestic interiors suddenly cropped up in all sorts of artistic contexts: in carvings, murals, paintings and illuminations. No longer did events – which so obviously took place inside – get dragged outside, in order for them to be witnessed in public. Instead, artists allowed us to peak inside, into the mysterious world of the private, the hidden and the intimate. Nowhere is this perhaps more obvious than in the late medieval manuscripts from 1400 – 1500, which began to look and feel more like 20th century childish picture books, than religious texts framed by free floating doodles, flowers and grotesques.

Why was this? Eva Oledzka does not offer us much of an explanation. It is as if she believes this was merely a reflection of the secularisation of manuscript production, which took off in the late14th century, when Latin also began to gradually give way to the vernacular.

St. Bonaventure writing the Legend and Life of St. Francis. Florence 1504. British Library, MS 3229, fol 26
Notice how there is an outside and two insides: St. Francis is inspiring St. Boniface to write down his legend, while Thomas Aquinas are entering from outside, admonishing and supporting him.
St. Bonaventure writing the Legend and Life of St. Francis. Florence 1504. British Library, MS 3229, fol 26

However, behind this shift was a wider cultural and religious history. To say it bluntly: In the high middle ages a sin consisted in an act. As such, thoughts were not in themselves sinful. You might lust for a woman or a man. But if you did not commit adultery, you were righteous in the eyes of God, because you had triumphed over the devil. In the later Middle Ages – to put it very simply – impure thoughts as well as states of mind – for instance melancholia – came gradually to be considered grave sins. Late medieval pious and spiritual individuals were simply much more obsessed with their inner life than their fellow high medieval ancestors. However, the irony of this was of course that as people had to explore this “inner life” in order to gauge the moral habitus of themselves and their neighbours, they also had to look for signs which might demonstrate their righteousness. In short order this led to people policing the private lives of themselves and their neighbours; which again led to a fascination with seeing what went on inside and what symbols of purity could be found in your own and your neighbour’s homes. Luckily, at this time shifts in the heating systems (chimneys and stoves) also provided practical possibilities to ensure smoke-free rooms, where all your wealth might be exhibited. It is perhaps this, which makes one of the most interesting chapters in this delightful book, one in which we are told the story of the role maiolica and glass played as symbols of Mary’s purity and virginity and how the exhibition of such treasures might have turned into clear expressions of faith. Showing off, some might say. Others might perhaps consider it more as a precursor to Calvinist thinking. It is obvious that Eva Oledzka does not dwell much upon this more general background for the opening up of the inner life in the 15th century. We should not blame her much, though. This story has already been written elsewhere and many times over

What we get are instead a series of delightful and down-to-earth introductions to the material culture in these late medieval homes. First of all we get an overview of the architecture: of doors and stairs, windows, floors, walls and ceilings. But we also get a fine introduction to the different systems of heating, lightening and hygiene as well as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms; not least do we get a sense of the furniture – beds, chests, cupboards, benches, chairs, stools and tables. Finally, we are introduced to how, when and where this new-found material wealth was displayed.

Looking at all the wonderful illuminations placed in front of our eyes we seem to be invited to feast upon endless details. Yes, some of the miniatures are definitely undersized, but we do have the ability to check out the digitized manuscripts on the website of the British Library, where most of the illustrations have been found; this is a wonderful opportunity for anyone partaking in living history and re-enactments.

Perhaps, in this way, the book will serve more as a fine catalogue than an actual pictorial source. The added bonus, though, is of course that the book is not just a coffee-table publication, but in fact also a fine and dense read.

Highly recommendable!

Karen Schousboe


Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau, Flanders ca. 1480 – 90. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford MS Douce 219, fol 145 – 46