The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is always quiet. Even mid-afternoon on a Saturday the crowd was hushed. I stood and looked through the glass at a six-hundred-year-old book. Lines and lines of meticulously hand-painted text covered the pages. I was struck by the sheer amount of work that went into what was before me—and I was only looking at one spread!

Beyond Words is an unprecedented exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Renaissance and Middle Ages. Illuminated manuscripts are so named because their pages are “illuminated” with decorations and illustrations, made especially vivid with bright colors and gold leaf accents. The Boston exhibition contains more than 260 manuscripts from 19 local curators and, according to Harvard art historian Jeffrey Hamburger, “will easily be the most ambitious exhibition of illuminated manuscripts ever held in North America.” The exhibition is divided among three locations around Boston, each focusing on a different type of these historic manuscripts.

Italian Renaissance Books—the portion of the exhibition that I was lucky enough to visit—is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum from September 22, 2016–January 16, 2017. This display “explores the birth of the modern book in fifteenth-century Italy.” The exhibition delves into how book production changed in the 1400s. At that time, parchment changed to paper, scripts changed to fonts, and illuminated manuscripts changed to black and white ones.

Manuscripts from Church & Cloister is being presented at Harvard University’s Houghton Library from September 12–December 10, 2016. The display focuses on how central books were to medieval monastic life. It displays the detailed texts that were produced in monasteries and convents. The exhibit focuses on how monastic life centered not only on the Bible, but on books in general. The exhibit seeks to convey the monastic reverence for texts and the “survival of classical literature and learning.”

The third part of the exhibition, Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety, is being presented at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art from September 12–December 11, 2016. This exhibit “focuses on lay readership and the place of books in medieval society.” The pieces in this collection are heavily illustrated, demonstrating the focus during the High Middle Ages on the visual and empirical experience.

This exhibition is an unprecedented collaboration between collectors and museums. Beyond Words is an excellent experience for bibliophiles and history buffs alike. If you find yourself in Boston, I definitely recommend going to see these pieces of literary history.

Did You Know?

Paper was not widely used until the late Middle Ages. Instead, parchment was commonly used. Parchment, also called vellum, is made from treated animal skins—oftentimes from cows, sheep or goats. A large book may have required one whole cow skin to make a single page spread. A lengthy manuscript could use the hides of entire herds.