Manuscript Illumination

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The illustration of manuscript pages, in whole or in part, by miniature painting and drawing was a major technique of medieval Christian art. The greater proportion of the painting that survives from the Middle Ages is in the form of manuscript illumination, which frequently provides the only evidence of the style of painting of a particular place or time.


Byzantine manuscript texts of the Bible were as richly illuminated as Byzantine church interiors that were decorated with painting and mosaics. From the 6th to the 10th century, artists adapted the techniques of Hellenistic artists who illustrated the Greek classics. The Gospel Book of Rabbula contains one of the first representations of the Crucifixion. Outstanding works of Byzantine manuscript illumination are the Vienna Genesis, the Paris Psalter, the Joshua Roll in the Vatican Library, and the sermons of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris). The 46 miniatures of the last reflect the practices of contemporary fresco painters. In later Byzantine manuscripts the pictorial background of the Hellenistic manuscripts was replaced by gold. The 430 miniatures in the Menologium of Basil II were the work of eight painters. Many of them show resemblances to the larger icons. In the 11th and 12th centuries, miniature painting, after having earlier assumed an independent character, began to reflect a strong classicizing tendency, as in the sermons of St. John Chrysostom (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris).


In western Europe the earliest examples of manuscript illumination are among the most brilliant and original. Three masterpieces of Anglo-Irish art of the 7th and

8th centuries are the Books of durrow and kells (Trinity College, Dublin) and the lindisfarne gospels (British Museum, London). The Book of Durrow was decorated c. 675; its ornamentation bears resemblance to Irish and Saxon work in metal of the mid-7th century. Its intricate interlace patterns, curvilinear designs, and animal ornament are characteristic of the books produced in the British monastic establishments of the period. The volume of the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from the closing years of the 7th century, survives complete, in 258 folios. The beautiful decoration of the text is the work of the artist Eadfrith, the first known by name in the history of the British Isles. The Book of Kells is a vellum Gospel Book like the others. An authentic masterpiece of European art, it was illuminated in the last quarter of the 9th century. The style is derived from the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels, though a greater sophistication is demonstrated than in either of them. The pages are covered with fantastic ornament, intricately drawn and colored. A remarkable series of ornamented initials, all different, runs through the text. The decoration of the book was the collaborative work of not less than four artists. Though their virtuoso work varies in style, the color is uniformly rich.

Manuscripts are among the principal art works of the Carolingian period. The Gospels of Godescalc, done at Charlemagne's capital of Aachen (781783; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), inaugurated the style perfected at Trèves under the Abbess Ada; the principal manuscript of the so-called Ada group is the Gospels of Saint-Médard-de-Soissons (Bibliothèque Nationale), which shows Eastern, particularly Syrian, influence. The Vivian Bible of the mid-9th century is a product of the school of Tours, whose manuscripts are notable for their script and narrative scenes. The Utrecht Psalter (University Library, Utrecht), written at Hautvillers near Reims about 832, is the most creative of all 9th-century manuscripts. The illustration consists of line drawings of extraordinary liveliness. No color is used, and the pictorial narrative has a cumulative epic quality. Also noteworthy are the Sacramentary of Drogo (855) in Paris and the Codex Aureus from Regensburg (870), now in Munich. Under the influence of Carolingian miniatures the school of Winchester in England produced drawings in the vivacious manner of the school of Reims but with more body to the total design of the page and with an exciting use of color and lush scrollwork in the frames around the picture.

The center of manuscript production during the Ottonian period in Germany was the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance, on the imperial route to Rome. Illuminated books from its scriptorium, executed in a new regal style, were sent to important towns of the empire such as Trier, Fulda, Bamberg, Regensburg, and Echternach. The outstanding surviving works are the Codex Egberti (980; Trier) and the Evangeliary of Otto III (Staatsbibliothek, Munich), the most lavishly decorated of the Reichenau manuscripts. The Sacramentary of Henry II (c. 1010; Staatsbibliothek) shows, like the others, a richness of color and use of gold suggestive of Byzantine influence. The Codex Aureus (c. 990; Landesbibliothek, Gotha) and the Gospels of Speyer (Escorial, Madrid) were commissioned at Echternach by emperors. The Munich Evangelistary illuminated in the early 11th century at Regensburg is one of the most complex manuscripts surviving from the Ottonian period.

The expansion of monasticism in the Romanesque period afforded additional opportunity for the copying of manuscripts and their adornment. Manuscript copies of the Commentary of the Apocalypse written by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana (c. 776) are noteworthy for their remarkable coloring. The manuscripts were copied for three centuries after the original composition of the text and had a wide influence on the work of schools of illumination throughout Europe. The earliest of the 24 manuscripts that survive dates from 926 (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City). The illustrations are marked by a sure grasp of design elements and an intense feeling for color. The program of illumination for the Beatus Apocalypse influenced the imagery of later medieval art work.

In the high medieval period, the work of the Paris miniaturists rivaled the stained glass in the windows of Gothic cathedrals in richness of color. Illumination, being a more flexible medium, surpassed stained-glass work in freedom of handling of elements, subtlety of expression, and capacity for exploring, interpreting, and recording natural phenomena. In the 13th century, devotional books intended for personal use were handsomely decorated by the miniaturists. The accentuation of human traits in Gothic sculpture is evident in the style of manuscript illumination. In the margins of the manuscript pages artists were able to give full rein to their inventiveness. Gothic manuscript illumination culminated in the famous Psalter Les Très riches heures du Duc de Berry (Musée Condé, Chantilly), executed at the outset of the 15th century by the Flemish miniaturist Jacquemart de Hesdin. The illumination techniques of Jacquemart's Psalter constitute a summary of the stylistic elements of International Gothic. The great tradition ended with the minutely realistic work of the Limbourg brothers and Jean Fouquet, who was also a panel painter.

With the advent of printing in the 15th century and the perfection of new means of pictorial representation in the 16th century, the art of manuscript illumination declined and by the end of the 16th century ceased to exist as a vital mode of artistic expression.

For further discussion and additional illustrations, see anglo-saxon art; carolingian art.

Bibliography: j. a. herbert, Illuminated Manuscripts (London 1911). Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrow (Paris 190753).11.1:12251374. s. de ricci and w. j. wilson, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, 3v. (New York 193540). l. rÉau, La Miniature: Histoire de la peinture au Moyenâge (Melun 1946). k. weitzmann, Roll and Codex (Princeton 1947). d. miner, Illuminated and Illustrated Books (Baltimore 1949).

[l. p. siger]

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Manuscript Illumination

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