'The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley' - as the saying roughly goes. Things (at least for me) seldom go according to plan and it demands considerable effort to turn from what may be a disappointment into a new line of discovery and an exciting prospect. So it was when, during the half-term break from my tutoring classes in Advanced Calligraphy and Illumination, I paid a visit to London, having a specific objective in mind which was temporarily thwarted. Instead, I discovered information about a most influential and talented woman of the middle ages who outclassed most male professionals in her spheres of imaginative writing, of calligraphy and illumination, of poetry, of political comment and many other areas of knowledge and wisdom. She was called Christine de Pizan, born in Venice in 1364, lived most of her life in France, and died about 1430.
I had promised my students that I would visit the British Library, near St Pancras in London and report back to them as much as I could find out about the Lindisfarne Gospels and other precious ancient texts. We had been studying the Illumination of Capitals, including the use of gold and other metallics, and here was an opportunity to see the work of the best of the ancient illuminators. Perhaps my dismay can be imagined when, on entry to the John Ritblat gallery and making a beeline for the exquisite Gospels I found the display case empty! On enquiry of the custodian I discovered that the Book had been removed earlier that morning, was not available for inspection and the reason was unknown.
In my relatively rare visits to London these days I try to pack in as much discovery as possible. Thus the sights which, in limited time, I found worth seeing were:
St Paul's Cathedral. I went into the Whispering Gallery and, on testing its acoustics, could not make it work. Of course there could also be conflicting noise at that time, as the marvellous choir had just struck up their singing practice in preparation for evensong. I climbed the 539 steps to the golden and stone galleries and thence right to the top of the dome, where a panorama delighted me - rather spoiled by the nondescript commercial skyscrapers now despoiling traditional London. I marvelled at the pre-Raphaelite art (done in 1906) on the vaulted ceiling in the chancel and, like other pilgrims, visited shrines (especially the American memorial behind the high altar), monuments and displays.
The ill-fated Millennium footbridge nearby St Paul's. Attempts have been made to lessen the shame of an engineering problem which occurred on the first day's opening - and closure because of vibratory oscillations. (Reminds one of the real disaster in the USA - the bridge over the San Luis Rey - which oscillated itself to bits).
The Globe Theatre at Southwark - the strutting place for that genius William Shakespeare; for as he said, "All the world's a stage..."
Tate Modern. Housed in a magnificent building, formerly South Bank Power Station. Amongst the thought-provoking displays of modern art, to which I make due obeisance, there was (in my opinion) much charlatanry, much 'pulling-the-wool over the eyes' of the viewing public.
The Millennium, Queen's and Jubilee Walks by the Thames, calling on the way to the National Theatre where in an exhibition area called 'Concert Pitch' was a guitarist entertaining the patrons.
On further searching for information about the Lindisfarne Gospels I found an excellent CD Rom, displaying all the extant illuminated folios, with commentary, explanation with historical, social, religious and secular notes. I have installed this on my laptop where it is available for study and research.
The British Library is reached from a courtyard outside, where there is a phenomenal sculpture entitled 'Newton' by Paolozzi. Inside there are maps, manuscripts, postage stamps and other displays, including a 'Turn the Pages' computer program of the Sherborne Missal, another of the great illuminated texts of the past. The future visitor is also enjoined to view in the basement a wall picture entitled 'Paradoximoron' which I will not describe further, except to comment that it is one of the most remarkable pictures I have ever seen, and probably the most memorable!
What caught my attention in the John Ritblat Gallery however, was a beautiful manuscript, with lovely illumination, and done by a lady called Christine de Pizan. She clearly turned distress into success for she became one of the most remarkable and respected literary figures of Mediaeval Europe, the only professional woman writer of her time and in crafting manuscripts in her scriptorium there was no equal. Whilst still in childhood her family took her to the Court of the French King Charles V. Her father Tommaso de Pizzano was his court physician and astrologer. Christine was married at fifteen years of age to a nobleman called Etienne de Castel. Charles V died in 1380 which deprived her father of his livelihood. A little later her husband also died leaving her with three children, a mother and a niece to support. She steadfastly resolved to carve out a career for herself and dependants despite all the odds being stacked against her. She turned to writing for a living and soon became renowned for her lyric poetry. She wrote tracts on political matters, a treatise on the rights of women, and also a biography of Charles V. Her output was astonishing. In her autobiography there are valuable insights into everyday life. Later she gained influential patronage and her work still survives in lavishly decorated manuscripts, some of which she worked herself, and some directly under her supervision by other craftswomen. It is often supposed that women were repressed in those unliberated times. Here is a superb example (perhaps a gender exception to the general rule) that, determination and grit plus talent and motivation, will enhance the probability of success!
page last updated 31 JANUARY 2002