Exhibit | September 19, 2016

Boston Public Library Loans Centuries-Old Illuminated Manuscripts for "Beyond Words" Exhibition

BOSTON - September 16, 2016 - Boston Public Library is loaning 36 medieval and early Renaissance manuscripts and printed books from its collections to three area cultural institutions, part of an ambitious collaborative project entitled Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections. The largest ever exhibition of medieval and Renaissance books held in North America, the BPL items date from the 10th century to the early 16th century, part of the Library’s Medieval and Early Renaissance Manuscripts Collection of Distinction. The materials will be featured at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the McMullen Museum at Boston College, and Houghton Library at Harvard University from September 2016 to January 2017. For more information about the exhibitions, visit www.beyondwords2016.org.

“These illuminated manuscripts and bound books represent a crucial period in the Western evolution of writing and reading,” said David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library. “This first of its kind collaborative exhibition is an exciting opportunity for the Boston Public Library to put our collection on display, and make these objects viewable and easily accessible to the public.” 

“The Boston Public Library’s early manuscripts collection is astounding in its breadth and overall quality. Scholars come to Boston from around the world in order to study these artifacts,” said Jay Moschella, Curator of Rare Books at the Boston Public Library and one of the facilitators of the exhibition for the library.

In preparation for the exhibition all of the BPL’s 36 items have been appraised, cataloged, and in some cases conserved and/or digitized. This work has been made possible with funding support from The Associates of the Boston Public Library, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving the Boston Public Library's special collections of rare books, manuscripts, prints, and other items of historic interest. 

“The Associates of the Boston Public Library is honored to have helped make this extraordinary exhibition a reality,” said Vivian Spiro, Board Chairman of the Associates of the Boston Public Library. “The collaboration among area institutions, as well as the manuscripts themselves, show that Boston is still a major cultural center, relative to the rest of the country. “

These unique and ancient manuscripts are some of the best sources for understanding the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Revealing many elements of the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual life of the period, they date from the 10th through early 16th centuries and cover a wide range of subjects. They also represent a wide variety of schools of both script and illumination in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, and England.

Many of the exhibited items from the BPL’s collection are superbly illuminated with exquisite miniatures. Some noteworthy volumes include a 10th-century lectionary from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Allyre in Clermont, one of the earliest codices in New England; the so-called Rosary Joan the Mad, an extraordinarily beautiful Psalter prepared for Joan, Queen of Castile by the master Flemish miniaturist Simon Bening; the Chronique Anonyme Universelle, a 34' 15th-century genealogical scroll detailing the history of the world from creation through the 1440s; an early 15th-century copy of Christine de Pisan's Le Livre de Trois Vertus, considered by scholars to be among the earliest and truest versions of her text; and the only surviving Dutch illuminated manuscript of Saint Augustine's City of God, written in the late 15th century.

The very nature of these texts renders them unique and rare. Executed in European monasteries or later in scriptoria, these manuscripts document the history of human thought from the 10th through early 16th centuries.

Totaling 260 objects, Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections features materials from 19 Boston-area institutions, including the BPL, Museum of Fine Arts, and Wellesley College, among many others. The manuscripts assembled are included in a single catalog with contributions from 85 international scholars, edited by co-curators Jeffrey Hamburger, William P. Stoneman, Anne-Marie Eze, Lisa Fagin Davis and Nancy Netzer and published by the McMullen Museum.


Boston Public Library has a Central Library, twenty-four branches, map center, business library, and a website filled with digital content and services. Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library has pioneered public library service in America. It was the first large free municipal library in the United States, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room. Each year, the Boston Public Library hosts thousands of programs and serves millions of people. All of its programs and exhibitions are free and open to the public. At the Boston Public Library, books are just the beginning. To learn more, visit bpl.org.