Some Illumination for All

Columbia’s collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts is rich and resplendent, for all that much of it has sat quietly and largely unseen in the stacks throughout most of this tumultuous year. But while opportunities to leaf through these manuscripts in person may still feel distant, it just got much easier to see a few of them: thanks to the dedication and vision of Professor Susan Boynton and the hard work of CUL colleagues Ben Armintor, Brian Lucero, Kevin Schlottmann, Melanie Wacker, and, of course, Dave Ortiz and his imaging team, four fully digitized music manuscripts are now accessible in Columbia’s Digital Collections and freely available for perusal, study, and discovery.

Gradual for Dominican Use, ca. 1300-1315 (Western MS 097, f. 246v)

These include Western MS 097, a pocket-sized volume containing the music to be chanted throughout the Mass, specifically the liturgy followed by the Dominican Order. Page through its diminutive parchment leaves and you can see music and text added in the margins, testifying to its ongoing use and adaptation over a century after its production.

Similarly small in size, Plimpton MS 034 still speaks volumes about rituals filling the lives and deaths of a community of Franciscan women founded as the Black Plague ravaged Europe. A nun would have held this manuscript in her hands and chanted from it during processions within the services for certain important feast days (like Palm Sunday or Maundy Thursday) and also during the burial rites for her sisters and others being interred in her Brussels convent. For a multisensory experience, you can explore its pages in the Digital Collections—keep an eye out for human and animal figures inhabiting some of the initials!—while listening to recordings of its musical contents here.

Barnard MS 1, currently on deposit in RBML, is a much larger book, intended not to be held in the hands of the individual singer but to be used in the choir of a church during the liturgies of the Divine Office. Richly illuminated initials punctuate its musical contents and feature some wonderfully detailed scenes from the life and death rites of St. Francis of Assisi.

Antiphonal for the Benedictine house of San Pietro in Perugia, 1473 (Plimpton MS 041, f. 1r)

Last but certainly not least is the massive and majestic (and quite heavy!) Plimpton MS 041, another choir book that shines with a riot of vivid pigments and burnished gold, the work of Perugian artist Giapeco Caporali (d. 1476). Just in time for this darkest time of the year, you can feast your eyes on his brilliant illuminations!

The sharing of these four fully digitized manuscripts in Columbia’s Digital Collections fulfills Professor Boynton’s long-held wish that Columbia make these manuscripts available to all in a sustainable, and ideally interoperable, form. “We will be able to use these images for all kinds of purposes,” Boynton observed, “teaching, research, creating new web exhibits and projects.” The work Boynton and her students have already done with two of these digitized manuscripts, exemplified here, speaks eloquently to the possibilities, all the greater now that these four manuscripts are widely available.

As more of Columbia’s Medieval and Renaissance Collections are fully digitized, we look forward to opening up even more of its volumes to viewers around the world.