Manuscript Illumination, by Justin

Added 4 July 2000

The following text was taken from a report on manuscript illumination sent to me by a British student. As a disclaimer, I have not made any attempt to verify the information contained in the report.

Medieval and Renaissance Visual Communication

This essay will describe a brief history of the Medieval period, and its art.

It would be a shame to concentrate solely on one particular subject, as the medieval period is abundant with inspiration. Bearing the latter in mind this essay will try to highlight notable periods and styles of Medieval art, with a special reference to a subject that I find interesting and fascinating - manuscript illumination.

Medieval or Middle Age Times

The terms 'Medieval' and 'Middle ages', are used by Europeans to describe the period of time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, to the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the end of the Eastern Roman Empire in AD1453.

The term Dark Ages is often used to cover the period from AD 476 to AD 1000, because it was a time when learning and the rule of law were at a low ebb in Europe. During the Middle Ages Germanic tribes overran slowly conquering areas of Europe, bringing with them a myriad of changes in language and culture.

The early Middle Ages saw the development of nation states in Europe, particularly England, Scotland, France, Norway, Sweden, Hungary, and Poland.

At the heart of Europe was the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of German states, some large, some very small. Over all was the power of the church, with the pope, based in Rome, as its head. Religion played a huge part in people's lives and communities spent large amounts of time and money building religious structures, from the humblest parish churches to magnificent cathedrals. These structures were often adorned with the extravagant art of highly specialised artists, such as sculptors, painters carpenters and the like.

The feudal system prevailed as a form of government and society. Great barons held land from the monarch of each state, and in turn lesser people held lands from them. At the bottom of this pyramid were the uneducated; peasants, very small landholders, and the serfs (landless people who worked as labourers or servants)

The later Middle Ages saw many changes. The 'Black Death' appeared, an epidemic of bubonic plague that ravaged Europe form 1347 onwards, killing about a third of the population, until its slow decline in the early 15th century. This resulted for the first time in a labour shortage, caused inflation, and eventually led to the end of the feudal system. Other changes happened due to the growing power of individual rulers, and from time to time splits occurred in the church. In 1309-77 the popes moved from Rome to Avignon in France. This was followed by a period of rival popes, some based in Rome, others at Avignon (1378-1417).

One can see that the medieval period was a time of unparalleled transition and upheaval, from the lowest serf to the highest of nobility. After researching the history of the medieval period, I have arrived at a conclusion. I feel rather honoured and lucky to live in the 21st century, although I can not help but romanticise about the sites, sounds and smells that would have been around me, If I were lucky enough to be of nobility.

Put simply Medieval Art is the painting and sculpture of Europe and parts of the Middle East, dating roughly from the 3rd century to the emergence of the Renaissance or (revival of learning) in Italy in the 1400s. Medieval art includes (amongst other types) early Christian, Byzantine, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Carolingian art. During the medieval period Religious sculpture, frescos, and manuscript illumination proliferated; panel painting however was only introduced towards the end of the Middle ages.

Early Christian art (4th-6th centuries AD)

This dates from when Christianity was made one of the official religions of the Roman State. Little is known about Christian art in the first 2 centuries after the death of Christ. Amongst the earliest manifestations of art visible are the early 3rd century paintings on the walls of church catacombs in Rome. Churches were built and artistic traditions adapted to the portrayal of the new Christian saints and symbols.

The Christians adopted Roman burial chests (sarcophagi) and the imagery of pagan myths was gradually transformed into biblical themes.

Early Christian art includes some beautiful examples of mosaics, often found in the upper walls and arches of Basilicas (churches), which can still be seen in Rome today.

Early Christians were bound by the authority of sacred writings, and its art placed increasing importance on the production of books and their illumination. Some fragments of the biblical text, written in silver and gold on purple vellum are sumptuously illuminated and are still preserved, foremost of these is, The Vienna Genesis, a manuscript of the first half of the 6th century. The Vienna Genesis shows the adaptation of illustrative methods to popular biblical subject matter.

Byzantine art (4th- 15th centuries)

This developed in the Eastern Empire, centred on Byzantium (modern Istanbul). Byzantine achievements in mosaic decoration brought this art to an unprecedented level of monumentality and expressive power in the West. In Ravenna, for example, churches of the 5th and 6th century's present powerful religious images on walls and vaults in brilliant, glittering colour and a bold, linear style. The Byzantine style continued for many centuries in icon painting in Greece and Russia.

An important aspect of Byzantine artistic activity was the painting of devotional panels, since the cult of icons played a leading part in both religious and secular life. The development of Byzantine painting can also be seen in manuscript illumination. Among notable examples of Byzantine illumination are a lavishly illustrated 9th century copy of The Homilies of Gregory Nazianzus and two works believed to date from a 10th century revival of classicism, The Joshua Rorulus/roll (The vatican), The Paris Psalter and The Exultet Rolls (pisa).

Celtic and Anglo-Saxon art (4th-9th centuries)

Stemming from the period when southern Europe was overrun by Germanic tribes from the north, this early medieval art consists mainly of portable objects, such as articles for personal use or adornment; bracelets, scabbards, harness mountings, horse trappings and the like.

Among the invading tribes, the Anglo-Saxons, particularly those who settled in the British Isles, excelled in metalwork and jewellery, often in gold with garnet or enamel inlays, ornamented with highly stylised, human and animal interlacing motifs. The Tara and Rogart broaches (both Dublin museum) are amongst the finest examples of Celtic metalwork. This type of interlaced ornament was translated into manuscript illumination produced in Christian monasteries, such as the decorated pages of the Northumbrian 7th-century Lindisfarne Gospels (British Museum, London) or the Celtic 8th-century masterpiece the Book of Kells (Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland) and The book of Durrow. In many cases of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, Illumination is largely concentrated in initials and title pages.

Carolingian art (late 8th-early 9th centuries)

Carolingian art centred around manuscript painting, which flourished in Charlemagne's empire, drawing its inspiration from the late Classical artistic traditions of the early Christian, Byzantine, and Anglo-Saxon styles. The best preserved pieces of carolingian art today are such pieces as smally ivory and metalwork carvings, which were originally designed to perform as book covers. Charlamagnes aim was to revive the art of antiquity. The existance of several local monastic schools led to a variety of styles; prominent were the Ada group, characterised by splendid colouring and figures full of movement and expression. One fine example of such decorative work is The Gospel Book of Ada (municipal Library, Trier) and the Reims school, known for vibrant pen drawings with little colour, a good example is The Utrecht Psalter (9th century; university library Utrecht)

Romanesque or Norman art (10th-12th centuries)

This is chiefly evident in church architecture and church sculpture, on capitals and portals, and also in manuscript illumination. Romanesque art was typified by the rounded arch, and combined naturalistic elements with the fantastic, poetical, and pattern-loving Celtic and Germanic traditions. Imaginary beasts and medieval warriors mingle with biblical themes. Fine examples of Romanesque art remain throughout Europe, from northern Spain and Italy to France, the Germanic lands of the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Scandinavia. In Spain where there was a mixture of Christian and Arabic elements, a highly imaginative manuscript called, The commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse was made, (10th century copy in the Pierpoint Morgan Library, N.Y.) The illumination of large books, Bibles and Psalters, was fashionable in the Romanesque era. Richly decorated initials graced these books and, in the early 12th century, stylised figures enhanced by complex garments and gestures were plentiful. Characteristic of mid-12th century work is, The Winchester Bible.

Gothic art & the golden age of illumination (late 12th-15th centuries)

Gothic art developed as large cathedrals were built in Europe. Sculptural decoration in stone became more monumental, and stained glass filled the tall windows, as at Chartres Cathedral, France.

Figures were also being exquisitely carved in wood. Court patronage produced many small ivories, goldsmiths' work, devotional books illustrated with miniatures, and tapestries depicting romantic tales. Panel painting, initially on a gold background, evolved in northern Europe into the more realistic International Gothic style. In Italy fresco painting made great advances; a seminal figure in this development was the artist Giotto di Bondone, whose work is said to epitomise the emergence of the Renaissance. One of the great transitions of manuscript illuminations of the gothic period is that both text and pictures form a united composition. At the beginning of the 13th century Paris was the birthplace of these new ideas in book ornamentation. There is a striking resemblance to the illustrations in the manuscripts of this period and that of the stained glass of the new style cathedrals. Book size decreased in this time but illuminated initials expanded, grotesque little monsters and trolls started to appear in the margins of books also.

Lay schools emerged in the 14th century, directed by individual artists, such as Maitre Honore and Jean Pucelle. Gold backgrounds were replaced by coloured landscapes and although colours were sometimes abandoned for grisaille as in the book, The Hours of Jeanne d'evreux (c1325, Metropolitain Museum of art N.Y.) by Jean Pucelle.

Greater realism and a wealth of ornament in the margins can be seen in the works done in the early 15th century for Jean, Duc de Berry. The work for the Duc du berry was done by the Burgundian court artists André Beauneveu, Jacquemart de Hesdin and the Limbourg brothers. The epitome of elegance was reached in the book, Très riches heures du duc de Berry (Chantilly) by the Limbourg brothers, showing a fusion of the refined Parisian style with the more realistic art of Flanders and also the influence of Italian panel painting.

Other notable works of the 15th century include the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c.1428-45; Morgan Library) and illuminations of The Master of Mary of Burgundy (Bodleian, Oxford). From the region of Tours came the highly accomplished Hours of Étienne Chevalier (Chantilly) by Jean Fouquet and the work of his pupil Jean Bourdichon. In England the early 14th-century art of illumination was nearly indistinguishable from that of France, e.g. Queen Mary's Psalter (British Mus.).

Italy was an important center of illumination in the 15th and 16th centuries. Among those who worked as illuminators were Fra Angelico, Mantegna (briefly), Liberale da Verona, and Giulio Clovio. In general, illuminations were no longer closely related to the text but became little paintings in Renaissance frames. The decline of the art of the miniature was made inevitable by the invention of the printing press, and toward the end of the 15th century wood-block prints began to replace painted illumination.

I have found the works of the Limbourg brothers very exciting and my personal favourite, of all of the medieval illustrators, as such I would like to give them a special mention in this essay, and to show some of their great works.

The Limbourg Brothers

The Limbourg brothers, Paul (Pol), Jean (Jan), and Herman (Hermann), were a family of Franco-Flemish manuscript illuminators. All three died in 1416, presumably of the plague. They succeeded Jaquemart de Hesdin in 1411 as court painters to Jean, Duc de Berry.

Paul Limbourg is thought to be the eldest and therefore the head of the workshop, but the first mention of any of the brothers was in the late 1390s when Jean and Hermann were apprenticed to a goldsmith in Paris.

In 1402 Paul & Jean were contracted to illuminate a Bible for Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. In 1404 Philip died and soon afterwards the brothers transferred to the Duke's brother, Jean, Duc de Berry. In the service of the Duc de Berry they enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, moving with the court as it progressed around the Duke's many castles.

Their Work

Their two important works for the Duc are the "Très Belles Heures" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) finished in 1808 or 1809, and the "Très Riches Heures" (Musée Condé, Chantilly), unfinished at the time of their deaths but finished 70 years later by the French illuminator Jean Colombe (1440-1493).

Their book 'Tres Riches Heures', is filled with exquisite illustrations of the daily life of the aristocracy and peasantry (see handout). It includes 12 beautiful full-page illuminations illustrating the months of the year, and is full of closely observed naturalistic detail, it is generally considered to be one of the most important works of the International Gothic style. To the International Gothic tradition the Limbourg brothers brought a vitalising Italian influence, apparent chiefly in their more sophisticated rendering of space. The Tres Riches Heures was painted over a period of 75 years, from 1410 to 1485.

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