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Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts

History of the Project

The Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts project makes thousands of digital images from the Morgan’s collections accessible on the Web. The images and accompanying descriptions are the product of an extraordinary collaboration between two great centers for the study of medieval art.

The Morgan Library & Museum—an independent research library and museum with extensive holdings of manuscripts, drawings, and rare books—houses one of the preeminent collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Since 1924 the Morgan has played a pioneering role in the development and training of American scholars in medieval studies, art history, and other fields.

The Index of Medieval Art—the world's largest archive of medieval art and the most comprehensive database for Christian iconography—is an art historical resource that has served scholars from a wide range of fields for the past eighty-five years. The Index currently holds descriptive records of over 200,000 works of art recorded in over 500,000 entries and classified under 26,000 specially created subject terms. Its Internet-accessible subscription database is the largest resource in existence for the study of medieval iconography.

The idea for the project was born in 1997, when staff from both institutions began to discuss an ambitious plan to photograph, digitize, and describe all significant illustrations in the Morgan's collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The project was viewed as an ideal collaboration. The Morgan’s collection spans some ten centuries of Western illumination and contains manuscripts from all the major schools, including some of the great masterpieces of medieval manuscript art; only a small percentage of images from these manuscripts has ever been published. The application of the Index’s iconographic classification system to the collection was envisioned as providing scholars with a completely new way of accessing the Morgan’s manuscripts, allowing them to be studied within the context of the many other treasures documented by the Index’s database.

In May 1999 the Getty Grant Program, a part of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which funds a diverse range of projects, including research in the history of art and related fields, awarded a $250,000 grant to the Index of Medieval Art to support the initial phase of this collaborative project. Generous support from the Homeland Foundation, a private, independent New York foundation, completed the funding in 2000 and enabled the Morgan to make the images and descriptions available free of charge to a wider audience through its online catalog, CORSAIR.

Several features set this collaboration apart from other projects involving digitization of medieval manuscripts. One is the sheer number of images: the Index of Medieval Art will eventually create for this project an estimated 75,000 images, representing every significant illustration in the collection. Another is the quality and depth of the information provided. Each image is described in exhaustive and authoritative detail by specialists in the field of medieval art; a single image may be accompanied by a two- to three-hundred-word description.

CORSAIR offers sophisticated searching capabilities for the specialist or simple searches for those wishing to sample medieval manuscript art. For example, a scholar studying the depiction of angels within thirteenth-century French manuscripts can locate all relevant images, while a teacher can find images of medieval warfare, agriculture, or court life that bring the period to life for an elementary school class. Users may print out the images or descriptions for private study or use them for classroom presentations (those wishing to reproduce the images in print or electronic form or make commercial use of them must contact the department of Imaging and Rights).