1902 Encyclopedia > Illumination


ILLUMINATION is a term which has long been used to signify the embellishment of written or printed text or de-sign with colours, and especially with gold, more rarely also with silver. The lustre of the former metal may probably have led to the adoption of the word in this sense. The Latin verb illuminare, with the meaning of " to decorate," occurs as early as the 8th century; and in the first portion of the Soman de la Hose, composed before 1260, enluminer is found with a similar meaning, while Dante (Purgat., xi. 79) alludes to this kind of painting and its French desig-nation as " quell' arte, che alluminar e chiamata in Parisi." In Early English we find the forms enlomyne, luminen, limnen, whence limn. Of synonymous use with these terms we find in the Middle Ages the words miniare and minia-tura, from minium, a red pigment, in early use for decorat-ing MSS. Miniature employed in connexion with the art of illumination now, however, generally signifies a picture or portrait as distinguished from mere ornament or ornate letters.

The research into the past which has characterized the present century has extended to the art of illumination, and, following the lead of D'Agincourt, Mabillon, and others, has by the examination of mediaeval decorated manuscripts thrown a vast amount of light upon the arts of the past. In spite of iconoclasm in the East, the burn-ing of Arabic MSS. in Spain, and the destruction and dissipation of libraries which unhappily accompanied the Reformation, a considerable number of beautiful and elaborate volumes have come down to us where larger and more exposed works of art have perished. They therefore supply many a lacuna in art history. Conformably to the unity which pervaded all art work in the Middle Ages, a close correspondence in style has been recognized between the ornamentation of MSS. of different periods and contemporaneous architecture and other arts. The architect, the decorator, the glass-stainer, and other artists have conse-quently learned, and with great profit, to search their pages for ornamental motives, details, and colouring, in thorough harmony with ancient styles, which no other source supplies so copiously. Invaluable materials too for the history of costume are found in the miniatures with which they abound.

The earliest writing of which monuments exist, the Egyptian, was often enhanced by the use of colour. In the ritual papyri, directions, &c, are written in red to dis-tinguish them from the main text, just as was subsequently done in mediaeval liturgical MSS.—a practice from which the term rubric is derived. A few scattered passages in Latin classic authors (notably Ovid, Seneca, Varro, Martial, Pliny the Elder, J. Capitolinus) prove the occasional use of rubrication and of pictorial embellishment of MSS. among the Romans. The earliest decorated MSS., at least of European execution, which have reached us date from the 4th and 5th centuries of our era, and are of ex-treme rarity. Of these one of the most celebrated is the Virgil written in elegant capitals preserved in the Vatican, in which the adornment is limited to rectangular pictures _(miniatures) painted in the antique manner seen in the
Pompeian frescos, the body colour laid on with a free brush and without black outlines. It may be taken as the type of a class of MSS. of which very few specimens are extant. A different type of early calligraphy, which was much esteemed, is found in the Codex Argenteus, now at Upsala, written about 360, containing Ulfila's Mceso-Gothic version of part of the Scriptures. It is written in gold and silver letters on vellum stained a red purple. The art of thus staining vellum, perhaps with the murex, was afterwards lost, and in the 8th and 9th centuries was imitated by painting the vellum.

After the 2d century art rapidly declined in the West, owing to the corruption and anarchy of the empire. It found a home, however, at Constantinople, where inter-course with Persia resulted in a style which blends Oriental magnificence with Western vigour and variety, and is de-stined, as we are about to see, to exercise a dominant in-fluence upon the art of Europe for many centuries. This style, known as the Byzantine, is distinguished by very characteristic details, and by its lavish use of gold, especially in backgrounds. Meanwhile Christianity had been planted in remote Ireland, which proved such favour-able soil that the isle was already at the beginning of the 6 th century renowned for its learning and sanctity, and was the seat of numerous monasteries and seminaries, where a native style of art was developed, wholly distinct from any* thing else which the world has seen. Its principal features are spirals, extremely ingenious plaits, and interlacements of attenuated lacertine animals and birds of conventional form. The human figure is sometimes introduced, but becomes objectionable, through the ignorance of drawing and of anatomy usually characteristic of semi-civilized attempts to portray the higher organisms. The wofk is further distinguished by a degree of minuteness, intricacy, and precision baffling to the modern draughtsman. It is seen in its highest perfection in the Book of Kelts, pre-served in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, and in the Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Museum. This style, known as the Celtic or Anglo-Celtic, was transplanted by Irish missionaries to Lindisfarne, Bobbio, St Gall, Wiirz-burg, Luxeuil, and other places, where volumes displaying this peculiar ornamentation are still treasured. The influ-ence of Anglo-Celtic art is very apparent in the subsequent " Carlovingian style " which arose in France and Germany under the fostering care of Charlemagne, and of Alcuin, whom he had invited to France to direct the progress of learning and the arts. The gospels found upon the knees of the great emperor when his tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle was opened, the gospels of St Servin de Toulouse, those of St Medard de Soissons, the Bible of San Calisto monastery at Rome, and the Harleian Codex aureus of the British Museum are justly renowned examples of this majestic and magnificent style, in which the pages glow with gold and purple, and the Roman acanthus, Celtic in-terlacements, and Byzantine details combine in harmonious variety. A text written wholly or partially in gold ink is another characteristic of the epoch. About this period too are found those gigantic initials which from containing figures relating to the text have been called in France Historiées. A new style had also arisen in England, in which the debased Roman acanthus was largely developed. This conventional foliage is here seen skilfully combined with gold bars, which surround the page, and form a border at the commencement of books, &c. This style has been called the Opus Anglicum. It often displays a masterly free-dom and spirit, and a peculiar " fluttering outline," which also characterizes the spirited pen-drawings frequently found in MSS. of the period. The finest specimens of this style, among which are the benedictional of St Ethelwold, belonging to the duke of Devonshire, and a couple of volumes in the public library, Rouen, were probably executed at Hyde Abbey, Winchester.

The apprehensions of the year 1000 as the end of the world tended greatly to paralyse art. As these fears died away, however, the Romanesque style of architecture was being developed, especially in the Rhine-lands. This was favoured by numerous Greek artists who, deprived of their livelihood by Eastern iconoclasm, had migrated westwards, and deeply impressed the Byzantine character upon the architecture of central and western Europe. Simultane-ously there arose a bold sweeping style of ornament, characterized by fine rounded curves and Byzantine details, but also by a tendency to naturalism, and, in books, by large initials. The Byzantine gold backgrounds were still a glowing feature, which indeed continued through the whole subsequent progress of illumination, From the 11th century gold leaf was applied to the vellum upon a substratum of fine plaster, and could be so highly bur-nished as to exhibit the rich lustre of a polished lamina of the solid metal. As skill in drawing increased, nature was more copied, and towards the 14th century natural foliage, conventionally treated, constitutes the main portion of the ornament. The oak, the vine, and especially the ivy, are frequent, springing in free spirited curves from decorated initials, or extending into a border round the whole or part of the page. The initials decrease in size whilst they gain in excellence of execution, and illumination, considered as decorative design, is generally considered to have reached its highest perfection about this period. The pictures of sacred subjects gradually lose Byzantine rigidity and assume dramatic expression, pose, and grouping. And towards the 15th century the blue or gold background begins to be abandoned for natural scenery and acces-sories. Towards the commencement of the 15th cen-tury illumination was liberally fostered by John, duke of Berri, brother of Charles V. His magnificence in this branch of art awoke the emulation of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, and of the duke of Bedford, the regent of France, in the same direction. For the last-named was painted the celebrated Bedford Hours, now in the British Museum, part of the workmanship of which has been ascribed to Jan, Hubert, and Margaretta van Eyck. As perfect mastery of drawing and facility of realistic execution were gained, illumination as a decorative art became debased in design. Borders of gold or richly coloured grounds, over which are scattered exquisitely painted flowers, fruit, and insects, surround pages of text or miniatures wrought with supreme manual dexterity, but not unfrequently of meretricious composition. In juxtaposition with this rich and copious ornamentation (the primary end of the book), the text, already less black and massive than in preced-ing centuries, too often dwindles into insignificance. The Hours of Anne of Brittany, preserved at the Louvre, is one of the most celebrated specimens of 16th century illumina-tion of this style.

The character of Italian illumination differs considerably from that which marked the art in central or northern Europe. It had arisen by slow degrees from the devasta-tion which Italy had suffered in the early centuries of the Christian era. The scriptoria of Ravenna, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Perugia, Ferrara, in the 13th and 14th centuries, produced illuminated volumes worthy of their growing schools of painting, and were especially celebrated for the elaboration of large choral books.

The Renaissance, with its revival and enrichment of classical forms, was fully reflected in the illumiriator's art, which was largely employed in smaller volumes for secular subjects, and was patronized by the Italian princely families, and finally reached its culmination in the hands of such artists as Girolamo dei Libri, whose drawing is very accurate, and attains a microscopic delicacy of stippling, and his pupil Giulio Clovio, who in his composition makes large use of the human figure, and with an imitation of Michelangelo's manner combines unrivalled minuteness of execution. Long after the invention of printing the popes and doges retained official illuminators in their service; and some of the most elaborate and costly volumes were executed subsequently to the introduction of the press. The typographical multiplication of books, however, proved fatal to the art. The early productions of the press, indeed, had blank spaces left for initials and miniatures, which were painted in by hand, often very roughly. These were soon replaced by printed designs in-tended to be gilt and coloured, which reflected the character of contemporaneous art, as far as the technical difficulties of the yet imperfect press allowed. The custom of adorning sumptuous volumes with engraved initials and other ornament has continued to the present time, with an increasing tendency to naturalism.

The visitor to the public libraries and museums of Moscow and St Petersburg will have there admired the rich display of Slavonic illuminated MSS. of peculiar style, intricate design, careful execution, and frequently fine colour. The leading features of Russian art were derived from Byzantium, but, as Russian archaeologists maintain, were blended with a native element, and a true national style arose in the 12th and continued to the 16th century, when the influence of the Renaissance began to be felt.

The fecund art of Constantinople was also the parent of another style—the Arabian or Mahometan—which, how-ever, contains a previously existing Oriental element. The style began to develop in the 7th century. It is geome-trical or constructive in character, the use of symbolism or representations of animals or plants being forbidden in the sect of Omar. Inscriptions in cufic characters are often happily used as a decorative feature ; rich colouring of red blue and gold prevails. The Turkish and Moresque styles are modifications of the Arabian. Illumination was carried in this style to the highest degree of splendour. Casiri's Bibliotheca Arabico-Hispana Escurialensis conveys some idea of the former magnificence of the Moorish libraries in Spain.

In India illumination, though of great antiquity, does not present those transitions of Style which mark the development of western art. Like Indian art generally, its special characteristics are profusion, richness, harmony, repose, and perhaps monotony, with very extensive em-ployment of flowers. Persian art was derived from India. It reflects the Persian love of flowers and symbolism, and the treatment is more free and natural than in India. It seems to have reached its highest perfection about the 15th and 16th centuries of our era, but is still continued. The execution of a magnificent MS. of the Thousand and One Nights was undertaken under the auspices of the present shah. The absence of any attempt to shade or give relief to-the design is, it should here be mentioned, a characteristic of all Oriental design.

During the earlier part of the Middle Ages the art of illumination was in Europe mostly practised in the scrip-torium or apartment devoted to the elaboration of MSS. which was attached to each monastery. In later times the art was practised by lay artists. Illuminators as well as patrons of illumination were occasionally found among the highest ranks; Saint Dunstan and King Rene' may be instanced. And some distinguished painters were also illuminators. All Western MSS. of fine quality were executed upon vellum. Materials were mostly prepared with great care by the artists themselves, or under their direction, and as a rule are found to have well stood the test of time.

The price given in recent years for MS. volumes valuable for their beauty or antiquity often reaches many hundreds of pounds sterling. A folio Vulgate of the 9th century was purchased by the British Museum in 1836 for £750. The Bedford Hours, acquired with other MSS. for the same establishment, has been valued at over £2000. At the Didot sale in Paris a MS. executed in the highest style of French art fetched above £63000.

Bibliography.—Among a large number of works on the subject the following may here be mentioned :—C. G. Schwarzius, Deornamentis librorum, Leipsie, 1756; N. Humphreys, Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages ; Silvestre and Ghampojlion, Universal Palazography ; Westwood, Palasographia Sacra Pictoria ; Madden, Illuminated Ornaments ; Tymns, The Art of Illuminating ; Bastard, Peinlures dcs Manuscrits ; Westwood, Facsimiles of Anglo-Saxon and Irish MSS. Information upon Eastern styles, with coloured plates, will be found in Racinet, Polychromatic Ornament, and O. Jones, Grammar of Ornament, and upon Russian art in V. Boutowsky's Histoirc de VOrnement Russe, d' apres les Manuscrits, Paris, 1870. For the technical part of the subject, see Theophilus, De diversis artibus, several editions, with translation and notes ; Original Treatises from the 12th to 18th Centuries on the Arts of Miniature, &e., edited, with translation and notes, by Mrs Memfield ; Bradley, Manual of Illumination ; Shaw, Art of Illumination. (H. B. W.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries