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Art Of The Illumination

( Originally Published 1913 )



Pleasing, artistic books have ever attracted, as those of dull, unattractive appearance have repelled. Children that frown over dreary pages will turn with alacrity to others embellished with pictures. For this reason school texts are made as appealing as possible, the better to arouse an awakening interest. Commonplace subjects are rendered inviting because of the decorations of books or by their abundant illustrations. Older readers as well prefer artistic editions for their own enjoyment and care is constantly exercised to make books decorative and alluring.

Similarly, in early times the desire to please the eye as well as enlighten the mind led to the development of illumination and miniature painting. The word illuminator appears to have been first used in the twelfth century and signified one who "lighted up" pages with bright colors and burnished gold. The word miniature has a very different significance today from the one it originally held. Red paint was called minium, and he who used it called a miniator. The present application of the name to a small picture is of comparatively recent date and arose through the confusion of the French mignon and Latin minus.

In appearance books of antiquity were wholly unlike those seen generally today. The Egyptians used papyrus for their writing material; the Greeks also used it, while skins of ani mals were in time utilized-the supply of papyri reeds being limited. Skins of nearly all animals and fish as well have served at one time or another as writing material, but parchment, made of sheepskin, and vellum, prepared calfskin, were generally preferred. Skins of pigs and oxen were prepared for cheaper surfaces and served as account books, ledgers and the like. Imitations of skins were devised in the Middle Ages and the manufacture of paper considerably reduced the cost of writing material.

Before the invention of printing, books were copied by hand, and, until the Christian era, took the form of scrolls.

Our word volume is derived from the Latin volumen, meaning a roll, or, more accurately, something rolled. These scrolls were not kept upon open shelves as are books today, but in closets prepared for them. The only existing library which in appearance resembles those which were provided in Roman homes is the Library of the Vatican, where no books are ordinarily visible at all-these being locked in cabinets arranged for them.

After the Christian era square books grew in favor. At first tablets of wood were prepared for accounts. The codex, meaning a block of wood, was first merely a square piece of board smoothed that one might write upon it. Soon two of these boards were fastened together by rings and coated with wax to make a yielding surface. After a letter had been read, the recipient could press the wax smooth again with the flat end of his stylus and inscribe upon the fresh surface his reply. These tablets remained in favor for some time. The one who carried these about, in capacity of postman, was known as a tabellarius. Finally skins were substituted in place of the rigid boards, and this marks the origin of books in the form known to us today, for several pages might be bound together.

Among the Egyptians the Book of the Dead was most highly prized. This was the guide for the soul on its perilous journey to the realm of Osiris, and without its aid one could

scarcely hope to arrive safely. It was upon this that the scribe expended greatest care, and illuminated fragments of this book have been recovered. After the decline of illumination in Egypt little is known of it until the time of the Roman princi pate. However, this does not mean that the art died out. In all probability it flourished, but examples of illumination are lacking for the period intervening between ancient Egyptian and late Roman years. It should always be remembered that the Nile valley has supplied most unusual facilities for the preservation of ancient remains, its arid climate preserving articles sealed in Egyptian tombs in spite of the flight of centuries.

We know little of classical illumination. Illuminated books were current among the Romans of the late republic and principate, and it is evident that they were made in imitation of these earlier known in Greece. Fragments of a copy of the Iliad, made probably in the fourth century of our era, are preserved in Milan. These consist of fifty-eight miniatures that have been cut from the copy, the illustrations alone, it would appear, having been valued. Only the lines that chanced to be written upon the backs of these miniatures remain. It is thought that the miniatures were copied from those in an older Greek version. The costumes are partly Greek, partly Roman. The gods are shown with the nimbus-the head of Jove encircled by a purple halo, Venus by a green one, while blue was used for several other deities.

The so-called Virgil of the Vatican is ascribed to about the same period. Fifty miniatures are herein set in simple frames of colored bands. The figures are not graceful nor the work artistic. It indicates a decadence of art.

As Rome declined and the new capital of Constantine became the cultural as well as political center, Byzantine art arose. Influences of both East and West were felt in Con stantinople and a school of illumination quickly developed, to be recognized for several centuries as the foremost in Europe. Those characteristics which predominated in Byzantine painting are found also in Byzantine illumination: love of splendor, lavish use of gold, silver and bright colors. Manuscripts done in burnished gold on parchment stained in royal purple became the prerogative of the emperors-purple ink being likewise reserved for them. The Gospels were frequently prepared in this costly way, and in such rare examples as survive the gold is still bright, although the purple parchment, being not dyed, but merely stained, has faded.

The work of the miniature painter and the illuminator took definite form, both working under arbitrary rules laid down by the Church. A similarity thus prevails among Byzantine specimens of illumination and makes it difficult to assign a definite date to particular manuscripts. No study of the nude being permitted, the figures show ignorance of anatomy. The draperies are sometimes skillfully done, but more frequently hang on the figures. In time monotony characterized Byzantine illumination, and western schools became more important. The Book of Genesis preserved today in the Imperial Library of Vienna well illustrates the Byzantine type. It consists of twenty-four leaves of purple vellum, miniatures being inscribed or. either side of the page.

Charlemagne encouraged education in the West and brought Alcuin from England to teach the school he established in Aachen-now Aix-la-Chapelle. The production of books was at once necessary and the illuminator's art demanded. Thus arose what is known as the Carolingian School of Illumination. In 796, and for several years following, Alcuin was Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery at Tours, where extensive literary work was carried on for the Emperor. Skilled illuminists were required, who in time developed certain peculiarities by which the school is distinguished. A Bible done in the Latin text was known as the Vulgate. There is preserved today in the British Museum a manuscript believed to have been the Vulgate done at Tours for Charlemagne. Bright gold and silver were used and gorgeous colors, yet the whole was neither gaudy nor tasteless. Instead of representing the Evangelists as old men-as had been the custom among Byzantine artists-they are represented as youths, much conventionalized.

The work of the Carolingian School reached its culmination in the ninth century, and centered in various Benedictine monasteries, particularly at Paris, Rheims and Tours.

No school of illumination produced more splendid results than the Celtic in the north of Ireland, whither Christianity was brought even before it was taken to England. The Irish monks were sufficiently remote to allow them to develop uninfluenced in the main by other schools. To be sure, traces of Byzantine influences are to be found, but, generally speaking, they worked independently. The art of the goldsmith had flourished here, and Celtic illumination gives constant evidence of the strong influence metal work exercised upon the illuminators. Durrow was the first center of Christianity as taught by St. Columba; later Iona became the head of the monastic system, and finally Kells, in Meath County. To the monastery of Kells in the seventh century was brought a copy of the Gospels supposed to have been inscribed by Columba himself. This precious example of Irish illumination, the most beautiful in the world, is now the possession of Trinity College, Dublin. The Book of Durrow is next in importance.

The Book of Kells contains, in addition to the four Gospels, a portion of the interpretation of Hebrew names-frequently included at the time with the Gospels-a list of the land grants to the Monastery of Kells and the Eusebian Canons. Eusebius, a historian of the latter portion of the third century, prepared ten tablets, or canons, citing first those passages common to all four Gospels, those common to three, to two, and, finally, those peculiar to one.

The Great Gospels of St. Columba, bound in jeweled covers, were many years treasured by the Cathedral at Kells, by whose name the manuscript is now known. Certain charac teristics of Celtic illumination are at once apparent as one examines reproductions of its beautiful pages, or, better still, the pages themselves. Floral and folial decorations were not used; rather spirals, bands, snakes, lizards-these last used to symbolize demons-birds, fish, and human figures abound. Such patterns and designs as abounded in metal work, such bands and traceries as were to be seen on cross stones erected to commemorate fallen Irish chieftains, these are found in this wonderful book. While in classical and Byzantine work it was the title of the book and the opening words that were illuminated, in Celtic manuscripts we find the first page of each Gospel beautified. Gold was not used-perhaps because it was difficult to obtain. Yet its absence is not conspicuous, so splendid are the blended colors and so complex the designs.

"The mind is filled with amazement as one views the extraordinary combinations of extravagant human and reptile forms, intricate arabesque traceries and geometrical designs, all woven together in a maze of almost incredible interlacings, which fascinate and charm the eye. Serpents and other reptile forms, but to what species they belong it would be difficult to conjecture; birds with their necks and legs elongated and interlaced; human figures with arms and legs twisted and knotted in coils, while their bodies are intertwined with those of birds-all yielding to the capricious requirements of the designer-are made to do duty as parts of this marvelous composition of ornament."

The Anglo-Saxon School grew up under the patronage and supervision of King Alfred. Winchester surpassed all other centers in the tenth century for its effective work. The Bene dictional of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, survives. It was done by a monk named Godemann and contains thirty full page miniatures-scenes for the most part from the life of Christ-each framed in an elaborate border. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the Winchester monks were famous for the beauty of form and delicate grace of their work.

After the Norman Conquest, strong French influence is apparent. The upper class was composed of Normans, who alone were patrons. Magnificent Psalters survive as specimens of the Anglo-Norman School. Small conventionalized leaves, grotesque dragons and monsters are found in the borders. The finest work was invariably done in the Benedictine monasteries.

In the Middle Ages monasteries were busy places. The scriptorium was the room given over to the making of books. Often the labor was divided, one monk preparing the parch ment for use, making it smooth and perfect; another carefully inscribing the text. It frequently happened that several copies would be made simultaneously, one reading while several scribes wrote down the words, leaving spaces for initials and miniatures; another put in the initials and the skillful painter finally placed the miniatures in the portions allotted to them. If the book was to be bound, this was done by still another. Monasteries could not always provide each portion of the labor, in which case arrangements were made for lay workmen to supply the part lacking. In the Benedictine monasteries, where the best work was done, it was customary to exchange monks from one to another of these religious centers. Thus the art of one became the possession of others. When finally illumination became a trade there was an immediate falling off in artistic qualities of the art. Only he who labored for the glory of his religion and his Order was sufficiently painstaking to make the work perfect. Haste and desire to accomplish much in a short time led finally to a decadence of illumination when books became more plentiful.

The resourcefulness and inventive skill, the perfection of the work giving no indication whatever of weariness, astonishes the beholder of priceless manuscripts in European centers. It must be remembered, however, that these pages were done under favorable circumstances. The monastery itself afforded shelter from a tumultuous world; it was generally isolated so that few disturbing echoes of medixval upheaval reached its confines. The necessities of life were provided for the brothers, who received no pay whatever for what they did, and who found great satisfaction and considerable relief from an otherwise monotonous life in labor of this kind. Moreover, the rules of the monastery were such that they probably never worked more than two hours without cessation. Although it happened frequently that the larger monasteries were able to provide specialists, quite as often all duties were united in one worker. He found a variety of occupations in preparing his gild and pigments, in making his pens and brushes, and sometimes in preparing his parchment.

Gold and silver were used as fluid or leaf. In the first case the pure gold coin was ground to finest powder, moistened with water and mixed with size-the white of egg or gum arabic; this preparation never allowed the high polish given the golf leaf, which was gold beaten thin and placed over a composition made of powdered marble. The fadeless blue ultramarine was made of powdered lapis lazuli, the deep cut particles separated from the rest by frequent washing. White was obtained from finest marble. Both mineral and vegetable colors were used, but those of mineral origin were most successful and enduring.

It is difficult to distinguish between French and English illumination of the later centuries. The grotesque animals and drollies are usually indicative of English origin. During the fifteenth century the study of the Bible by the laity was discouraged and other religious books were substituted. The Book of Hours was the prayer-book for the laity as the Breviary was the prayer-book for the priests. These Books of Hours contained the Church calendar, and most beautiful copies were produced in France. One of these made for the Duke of Anjou is now preserved in the National Library of Paris. "Every page has a rich and delicate border, covered with the ivy foliage, and enlivened by exquisitely painted birds, such as the goldfinch, the thrush, the linnet, the jay, the quail, the sparrow-hawk and many others; and at the top of the page, at the beginning of each division of the Horae, is a miniature of most perfect grace and beauty, the decorative value of which is enhanced by a background, either of gold diaper, or else of delicate scroll-work in light blue painted over a ground of deep ultramarine." This library possesses as well the Book of Hours made for the Duke of Berry and sold at his death for two thousand pounds.

"One special beauty of French illumination of this date is due to the exquisite treatment of architectural frames and backgrounds which are used to enshrine the whole picture. The loveliest Gothic forms are introduced, with the most delicate detail of tracery, pinnacles, canopy-work, shafts and arches, all being frequently executed in gold with subtle transparent shading to give an effect of relief. From the technical point of view these manuscripts reach the highest pitch of perfection; the burnished gold is thick and solid in appearance, and is convex in surface so as to catch high lights and look, not like gold leaf, but like actual plates of the purest and most polished gold. The pigments are of the most brilliant colors, so skillfully prepared and applied that they are able to defy the power of time to change their hue or even dim their splendor. "

The demand for secular books on the part of nobles enlarged the scope of the illuminator. The Chansons de Geste (songs of deeds) and Froissart's Chronicles were reproduced again and again. Chivalrous feats and romances caught the ear of knights and brought new commissions to the monasteries. Yet these never supplied such constant demand nor were ever executed with such painstaking as the religious books. The Horae were long regarded as suitable to give royalty, church dignitary, noble or bride. Bound in covers of gold, studded with precious jewels and rare stones, such a book might be offered as security for a loan and was treasured as an heirloom. "They were things of beauty and joys forever to their possessors. A prayer-book was not only a prayer-book, but a picture-book, a shrine, a little mirror of the world, a sanctuary in a garden of flowers. One can well understand their preciousness apart from their religious use, and many have seen strange eventful histories no doubt."

It is surprising to find that Italy was comparatively poor in the art of illumination. Of the twelfth century there remains little beside the Exultet, a roll of pictures presenting scenes from Old and New Testaments, and used to hang in front of the pulpit for the instruction and edification of the masses, who could seldom read or write. Such a roll was called an Exultet from its first word-the opening word of a hymn: "Exultet jam Angelica turba caolorum," sung at the dedication of the wax tapers on Easter eve. The Renaissance brought a fresh impulse in all fields of art; illumination improved and for a time stood unrivaled. Beautiful copies of Dante's Divine Comedy and Petrarch's Poems were made.

Germany, Flanders, Spain, and the Netherlands all produced schools of illumination. Only the student of this subject would be interested to follow the various distinctions found among them. The great museums afford opportunity to study their characteristics, and a few English works discuss at length certain aspects of the subject. In America it is more difficult to study the subject minutely, owing to the dearth of mediaeval manuscripts. The old missions treasure interesting examples of the art as practiced at the time of their foundation-after the invention of printing had lessened the demand for hand labor to a marked extent.

The examples of illumination reproduced in the texts enable one to understand how profuse this art became in France during the Renaissance. The miniature is now placed above the initial letter, giving it a prominence it did not originally possess. Distinct borders abounding in leaves, a variety of flowers -roses, violets, the corn-flower, columbine and thistle; strawberries, acorns, birds and feathers, intermingled and given variety by the introduction of grotesque creatures-half beast, half human, griffins, and insects, form settings for the miniatures, which in the pages from the Book of Hours follow well-known biblical stories: the Flight into Egypt; the Adoration of the Magi, and, in the instance of the Processional, supply scenes from monastic life itself.



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