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Deirdre Jackson, Research Associate in the Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books, joined the Museum in 2011 from the British Library. A Courtauld trained art-historian, she has been working in the field of manuscript studies for over fifteen years. Here, she talks about one of her favourite manuscripts, her main research project and the work she has done for our Bicentenary exhibition, COLOUR: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts (30 July – 31 December 2016).

Since coming to Cambridge, I’ve examined and catalogued manuscripts of incomparable beauty as well as poignant artefacts, including a set of books commissioned by Thomas Becket shortly before his murder in 1170, now preserved in Trinity College. The results of my research, which has focused, in particular, on French manuscripts, have been published in a set of catalogues produced by the Cambridge Illuminations Project. The aim of this ambitious project, which is based at the Museum, is to catalogue every medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscript in Cambridge — volumes held by the Colleges as well as our own extensive collection.

Over 2000 manuscripts and cuttings are preserved in the Museum alone, and among the very finest are those acquired by Viscount Fitzwilliam, gifted to the Museum as part of his bequest of 1816. Among my favourites is a magnificent Psalter commissioned by the Abbot of Peterborough who is pictured in the volume. Made over 800 years ago, this tangible link to the past is one of 150 manuscripts showcased in the COLOUR exhibition, which aims to broaden our understanding of the methods and materials employed by illuminators across Western Europe.

I’ve been exploring the symbolic resonance of colour, addressing the question of how people in the past perceived colours, and what this can tell us about their ways of life and modes of thought. Colour informed virtually every discourse and discipline in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and it has been fascinating to select a range of manuscripts that tell this story, from religious, philosophical and allegorical works to medical texts.  

These manuscripts are displayed in the final section of the exhibition: ‘Colour and Meaning’, and the subject is examined in greater depth in my essay and entries in the exhibition catalogue, and in the new digital resource designed to complement the displays: Illuminated: Manuscripts in the Making. 

Recently, I’ve become intrigued by images of the goddess Fortune. My interest in this subject grew out of research conducted for my book, Medieval Women (2015), which uses manuscripts to elucidate issues of gender, female sexuality, social status and codes of behaviour. To signal the variability and capricious nature of Fortune, artists sometimes painted one side of her face black and the other white for good and bad luck respectively, or clothed her in bi- or multi-coloured gowns. Changing ideas about ‘Lady Luck’ are reflected in the work of a variety of illuminators who used colour to transform and reinvigorate the ancient goddess. I’m continuing to investigate this subject and will present my results at the international, cross-disciplinary conference to be held in December 2016 in conjunction with the COLOUR exhibition.