The blazing beauty of the open book

An 8th-century manuscript of St Augustine’s Quaestiones et locutiones in Heptateuchum produced in Laon (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,
département des Manuscrits, Latin 12168, f.Cv-1) – on display at the Centre Pompidou Metz

To open a book has been for millenia a sacred experience. Its doors flung open, the book invites the reader into its inner sanctum. Not unlike a temple or a church, its pages guide the supplicant to its centre, channelling the divine, commanding the scanning eyes, steering the dazed mind from the roaring waters of bewilderment to the shores of understanding.

The open book doesn’t have to be magical to be bewitching. The first impression counts more than all the others, and the medieval scribes and illustrators knew that, for even the scantiest book decoration would feature at the beginning.

In the Western classical tradition, beauty is a sign of truth, and truth is always beautiful. The divine is also both true and beautiful, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the medieval manuscripts on display in libraries, museums and art galleries today are monuments of dazzling beauty, carpet pages of staggering brilliance, initials of imaginative genius, full-page gilded illuminations of shattering light.

To open a book is to embark on a journey of self-transcendence, to be overcome by the power of the painted word, the blood and skin etched deep into the parchment. When St Augustine once opened a book, his life would be forever transformed: Tolle, lege! Take up and read, and let yourself be blinded by beauty.

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