A guest blog post by Jarkko Tanninen, History of Art Junior Honours student on work placement in Special Collections.
I was fortunate to be selected for an eight-week long work placement at the University of Glasgow Library’s Special Collections department, part of Archives and Special Collections, with the aim of gaining valuable skills in research and archiving that I can apply in my future work. My main task was to translate an exhibition titled “Seeing the Reformation: Religion and the Printed Image in early Modern Europe” from the Library’s offline touch-screen device into an online Flickr album. As a History of Art student I was attracted to the subject of the project as the placement would involve close inspection of the visual imagery utilized in early Protestant culture. My previous knowledge on the subject was not extensive, thus the project provided a fantastic opportunity to immerse myself in these images and subject matters that were unfamiliar to me, yet which I found extremely fascinating.
The original project, a touch-screen exhibition on Level 3 at University of Glasgow Library, was curated by Dr. Adrian Streete (University of Glasgow). The touch-screen exhibition was accompanied by a physical display of some of the key books in the foyer on Level 12 of the Library. The project was inspired by and borne out of his research for his new book Apocalypse and Anti-Catholicism in Seventeenth-Century English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Seeing the Reformation brings together a variety of visual imagery from a period of iconoclasm and religious turmoil, and reflects how the use of illustrations was reconsidered amongst Protestants and Catholics alike.
2017 was a year that marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther purportedly nailing his manifesto on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany*, resulting in the division of Christianity into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In terms of art, the Protestants abandoned large-scale depictions of biblical scenes favoured by Roman Catholics and focused more on the personal, small-scale illustrations containing biblical – and moral – lessons. Through book illustrations and prints the Protestant authorities were able to bring religious education to bigger audiences and to educate their congregations even in their own homes. Although the Protestant Reformation also resulted in extreme cases of iconoclasm, such as Beeldenstorm **, Luther and other Protestant authorities understood the importance of visual imagery in the quest to advance their ideologies and attack the Roman Catholics. The first component of the Flickr exhibition, Anti-Catholic Images, showcases such illustrations where the Roman Catholic Church is symbolized by the Whore of Babylon or is blamed for the Great Fire of London. Visual imagery was not only a religious but a highly political tool, both in the process of exposing other religions for their corruption, but also in underlining the English Monarch as the head of the Church. My main interest lies in the depiction of biblical stories, including the Genesis, and the way God is represented as Protestants were wary of the subject matter.
A crucial part of my work placement was to get to know the ins and outs of the Special Collections department. Although being an active visitor of the Library, I had never had the chance to visit level 12 before. During my first session with my supervisor Fiona I learned that the collections span around 2000 years of materials, with a history of 500 years of collecting. The department does not focus solely on old materials but also collects rare items from more modern periods. One of the main aims of Special Collections is to support teaching and learning, a job that my work placement would focus on. I was introduced to Flickr, a website I knew of but had no previous experience with, and discussed the opportunities it provides for the Special Collections department. Online platforms like Flickr and WordPress provide the department with a chance to reach wider audiences, people from the other side of the world who may not necessarily have the ability to travel to Glasgow to see the originals. Those who can travel are able to first get a quick glimpse of what is included in the collection and then request relevant material, saving time for them but also reducing the physical contact with the fragile items.
The placement taught me also about the technical side and the requirements needed to handle fragile materials. Environmental control is crucial in the prevention of damage to the material; the temperature in the stack and the reading room is set to a lower room temperature, between 18-20 degrees, and the humidity at 55%. In my third session my supervisor Fiona brought out some of the books relevant to my project and I was given the chance to browse them and see the original illustrations. The handling procedures for fragile items are quite strict, again to avoid further damage. It is important to use foam cushions when studying the material as opening the books can stretch the spine and hard surfaces can scrape the covers. When flipping pages, one must be cautious not to touch the actual images or text but rather hold the page from the clear edges of the page. Clean and dry hands prevent any grease from getting on the paper. Although damage is rarely noticeable immediately, over the time dirt and grease will cause the thin paper to discolour.
In the process of creating the Flickr exhibition, I noted that several of the original sources came from the Euing Collection. The collection was donated to the University of Glasgow by an insurance broker named William Euing after his death in 1874. The collection includes over 12,000 books, including over 300 medieval and early Bibles. His generosity has enabled such rare items to be included in this research, with books containing particularly Reformation imagery. An example of this is Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament, Das Gantz New Testament (1529). The book contains illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder, a close friend of Luther’s, whose work I will study more closely in a later blogpost. A page from the book can be found in the Apocalypse-section of the Flickr set, showcasing an illustration of St John’s first vision of God at the start of the Revelation. The image suggests that Cranach had taken inspiration from Albrecht Dürer and his famous series of woodcuts titled The Apocalypse (1498).
Overall the work placement was a fascinating and informative introduction to both the Special Collections department at University of Glasgow Library, but also to the imagery of the Reformation. The Flickr set I created as part of the placement will be easily accessible to everyone regardless of their geographical location. The online exhibition will hopefully aid academics to have a closer and inspiring look at the Reformation illustrations from the Special Collections.
The Flickr set can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/sets/72157691802211444/
*There is a debate between scholars whether the nailing of the manifesto actually happened, the idea most famously rejected by the historian Erwin Iserloh in his article “Luther Thesenanschlag: Tatsache oder Legende” in 1961.
** Beeldenstorm (Dutch) refers to outbreaks of iconoclasm in 16th century Europe, most often involving the destruction of Catholic art in churches and public places.
Categories: Archives and Special Collections