Born of the commitment to offer the Morgan Library & Museum’s famed collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts as a resource to New York City schoolchildren, the Morgan Book Project aims to integrate book arts into Common Core State Standard-based curricula and the Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts.
Every year the project begins with a four day Summer Institute to prepare teacher participants for the following fall and spring when they will lead their students in the writing, illustration, and binding of manuscript books. After six months of work, each school submits their students' four best projects to a jury of book professionals who select the books to be featured in an installation at the Morgan. The authors receive an award in the Morgan’s Gilder Lehrman Hall in the presence of their families, school teachers, and principals
The Morgan Book Project uniquely draws on the Morgan’s collection of illuminated manuscripts to offer students an experiential and multimodal insight into medieval and Renaissance processes, materials, and to some degree into a more traditional approach to and pace of creation and execution of art works.
In that regard, the most striking feature of the project is the students’ use of malachite, saffron, cochineal, chalk, indigo, and weld as pigment and dye sources. Children learn to process those materials to obtain water based paints. The art work is completed with twenty-two karat gold leaf applied on fish glue.
The palette’s limitations were primarily determined by our concerns about toxicity. Although a full late medieval or Renaissance palette would be much wider than what we could safely provide our young artists, it still would not offer the chromatic range and flexibility of modern commercial media. The students, therefore, are encouraged to demonstrate their creativity in spite of narrow parameters. In addition to the range of colors, quantity is also restricted. Like skilled medieval apprentices and artists, students know that the precious and semi-precious materials entrusted to them cannot be wasted, and they do indeed exert care and thoughtfulness in processing and applying the paint and gold.
A second remarkable feature of the Project is the slow pace that it requires. Students spend six months on their books, which is typical of the time medieval teams of scribes and artists spent on the production of books of hours. Making a book from scratch entails patience, resilience, and commitment. It also requires an in-depth and systematic reflection on the project.
The in-depth approach starts with the students’ visit to the Morgan, where they carefully study the layout of manuscript pages and learn to recognize their similarities and differences. Back in school, they learn to devise discrete elements such as text, margins, miniatures, and ornate initials that provide visual consistency and flow to support narrative consistency and flow throughout the work One favored medieval feature is the hierarchy of major and minor initials: following that model, students will typically design elaborate initials to begin a story or an important paragraph, while reserving smaller capitals for lesser textual transitions.
The in-depth study of Morgan medieval manuscripts also allows students to reflect on a variety of iconographic forms and to appreciate the distinction between an ornate and a historiated initial. They learn to differentiate between narrative and symbolic, as well as, figurative and decorative images. With those distinctions in mind, they will make artistic decisions based on a unified theme and create a coherent iconography throughout the book.
After six months of work, students come to realize what medieval scribes, artists, and readers knew: the book is not only a vehicle of information; it is a beautiful art object in its own right, a product of their imagination, hands, and skills that derives its value from all the care that they have invested in developing and executing it. The books they made draw a bridge between the precious, rarefied, medieval books in the museum and their own artistic lives.