Currently New York's Pierpont Morgan Library is host to a show consisting of Flemish, Italian, and French illuminated manuscripts from the British Library. Spanning the late 15th to mid-16th centuries, the period known as the High Renaissance, these manuscripts demonstrate the vast range of artistic taste and tradition from Venice to Valenciennes, from Milan to the Loire.
The scholarly catalog for the exhibit has been published in handsome hard-cover and paperback editions. ''Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts: Treasures from the British Library'' provides a fine introduction to the manuscripts of the British Library, the decade-old home for Britain's national collection of illuminated manuscripts previously housed in the British Museum. The book doesn't deal with the illuminations from the Morgan Library collection, also exhibited in the New York show, but it does amplify the Morgan display.
The articles concerning attribution, locale, and dating for each manuscript help explain the network of High Renaissance influences across the Alps. Included are previously unpublished manuscript paintings that heighten access to this most private and intimate of art forms.
Between antiquity and the Renaissance, all major artistic cultures of the West and Byzantium produced some form of painted manuscripts. Examples seen in this collection represent the very end of this tradition. As one reads the catalog, one perceives the influence of the illuminated manuscript on the advent of printing and the printed book.
One of the most popular forms of painted manuscript is the ''book of hours,'' which served essentially as a guide to prayer seven times a day. Such books were in wide use by lay people of the aristocratic class in the late middle ages. Although the books varied in content, they often included psalms, lessons, responses, and gospel sequences, which offered the artist a range of subjects. Originating in the 13th century, these books quickly began to supersede the book of Psalms (or Psalter) as a source of prayers. In the 15th century, books of hours were sold in the marketplace, and copies survive in the tens of thousands.
The cultural variety of the current exhibit is immense. Among the examples from Northern Europe are four calendar pages and a group of large genealogical leaves by Simon Bening, the last great Flemish illuminator. These leaves represent the center of the show (which opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., in 1982).
One page from the celebrated ''Hours of Etienne Chevalier,'' whose leaves were apparently dispersed after the French Revolution, represents the work of the French court artist Jean Fouquet, whose luminous cityscape of Paris is owned by the Metropolitan Museum.
Occasionally the juxtaposition of Northern and Southern European images can be jarring. For example, Birago, an Italian, painted a series of miniatures known as ''Hours of Bona Sforza,'' from which a thief removed a number of the pieces soon after they were painted. The series was finished by the Fleming Gerard Horenbout. Horenbout harmonized the colors of his pages with his predecessor's, but painted softly textured rabbits in a delicately leafy meadow at the edge of a woods. His work can be taken as a humorous comment on the Italian's images of a hard-edged, plump putto in a stylized, linear landscape.
The catalog allows one to enjoy the variety of images in a way the exhibition does not: It seems impossible at the Morgan to pore over the exquisitely beautiful but infinitesimally detailed works as long as one would like. And, even though the book can't reproduce the full richness of color exhibited in the show, one is still grateful for its illustrations and good, scholarly text.
Examples show the range of the illuminators' style to be wide. The Paduan humanist scribe and artist, Sanvito, used wide empty vellum margins to set off the carefully chosen colored inks of his cursive script and the small, peaceful, deep-spaced ''Nativity'' inset image.
In the French ''Passion'' cycle, the borders are flamboyant and Gothic.
In the ''Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castille,'' Flemish cut wildflowers strewn in borders appear to cast shadows against the vellum around the poetic central image of ''St. John on Patmos,'' seen seated on a leafy hillside beside reflecting water. Thomas Dern calls this ''conceivably the most beautiful miniature in Flemish illumination.''
The brightly gilded frame for the French 1520s Hours Workshop's ''Annunciation to the Shepherds'' is made congruent with the simple Northern architecture behind a fuchsia-pink-garbed shepherd. Across the page, elegantly stylized leaves and a grasshopper border the text.end cho
For those who want to take in the equivalent of a wing of full-size paintings all in one room, the show will be at the Morgan until April 29. But patience is needed to assimilate the variety and to enjoy the selection. And one must face the slightly disconcerting fact that right under so many of these beautiful images lie many more leaves within the very same book - works that even this generously illustrated catalog cannot fully reveal.
Yet, like the manuscripts themselves, the book's plan - ranging from the largest context in the introductions to the infinitesimal historical and artistic detail - well rewards general readers and students alike.