1902 Encyclopedia > Miniature


MINIATURE is a term which by common usage has come to be applied to two different branches of painting.

Derived from the Latin word minium, the red pigment used in the primitive decoration of MSS., in the first place it is the technical word employed to describe a painting in a MS.; and, from the fact of such pictures being executed on a reduced scale, it has its secondary and modern signifi-cation of a small, or miniature, portrait. In the latter sense it belongs to the general subject of painting. Here it is proposed to trace the development of the miniature in MSS. of the different schools of Europe.

The rise of the art of ILLUMINATION, in which the miniature plays so important a part, has been described under that heading; and something has been said in that place about the earliest extant specimens of miniature painting. Unfortunately we cannot with any certainty reach farther back than the 4th century for the most ancient of them; and all remaining examples between that period and the 7th century in Greek and Latin MSS. can be counted on the fingers. The two famous codices of Virgil in the Vatican Library stand pre-eminent as the most ancient Latin MSS. decorated with paintings. The miniatures in the first of them, the Codex Romanus, are large and roughly yet boldly executed paintings, which have no pretension to beauty, and are simply illustra-tions ; but they are as old as the 4th century, and are of the highest value in enabling us to appreciate the debased style to which classical art had descended, and which no doubt was more largely employed than we might think. The second MS., the Schedx Vaticanx, which may also be assigned to the 4th century, is far more artistic and retains a good deal of the grace of classic art. Of the same kind, but of rather later date, are the fragments of the Iliad in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, the miniatures of which are generally of excellent design. Next comes the Dioscorides of the Imperial Library at. Vienna, with its semiclassical portrait-miniatures executed at the beginning of the 6th century. Of a rather later period are the paintings which illustrate the Greek MS. of Genesis in the same library. A far finer and older MS. of the same book of the Pentateuch once existed in the Cottonian Library, but was almost totally destroyed by fire. The few fragments of the miniatures which once filled this volume, and which were of the 5th century, are sufficient to show what excellent work could be done in the capital of the eastern empire, from whence the MSS. most probably came. The late interesting discovery of an illus-trated MS. of the Gospels in Greek, of the latter part of the 6th century, at Rossano in southern Italy, adds another number to our scanty list of early volumes of this class, which is closed by the Latin Pentateuch in the library of the earl of Ashburnham. This last MS., however, is not older than the 7th century. It was executed in Italy, and is adorned with many large miniatures, not of high artistic merit, but of great interest for the history of painting and of costume.

Coeval with the MSS. which have just been enumerated are the beautiful mosaics and wall-paintings which are seen at Rome, Ravenna, and in other parts of Italy, serving as standards of comparison and carrying on the history of art where MSS. fail us. The strong and ever-increasing Byzantine element which appears in these works prepares us to find the predominance of the same influence when we again pick up the broken thread of the history of miniature painting. We may then, at this point, turn for a moment to the east of Europe and state briefly what remains of Greek art in MSS. Of Greek miniatures there are still many fine examples extant, but, excepting those which have been noticed above, there are few which are earlier than the 11th century. At this period the miniature appears in the set form which it retained for the next two or three hundred years; and the connexion between its style and that of the mosaics is too evident for us to be at a loss to explain the course of development. The figure drawing is delicate, but rather exaggerated in length; the colours a're brilliant; and the whole effect is heightened by glittering backgrounds of gold. In some few instances, however, the Greek artist breaks away from conventionalism, and, especially when pourtraying the divine features of the Saviour or some subject which deeply stirs his feelings, he surprises us with the noble dignity with which he invests his figures. Minuteness also caught the fancy of these Byzantine miniaturists; and there still remain MSS., such as Psalters and saints' lives, adorned throughout with delicate little drawings of great symmetry and beauty. The ornamentation which was employed in Greek MSS. in the period of which we are speaking, either as frames for miniatures or as borders or head-pieces, is designed evidently after Eastern types, and has more than an accidental likeness to the patterns which are seen in the tapestries and prayer-carpets of Persia. After the 13th century decadence sets in, and we need not follow the course of Byzantine art in MSS. farther than to notice that immediately from it sprang such national styles as those of Russia, Bulgaria, and modern Greece.

Meanwhile, in the West, under the fostering care of Charlemagne, arose a great school of decoration in MSS., which at the close of the 8th and beginning of the 9th century were multiplied and enriched with all the splendour that colours and gilding could give to them. But the books thus ornamented were almost always copies of the Gospels, or Bibles, or church service books, which afforded little scope for invention. Hence among the miniatures of this period we have an endless repetition of portraits of the evangelists, drawn, for the most part, in a lifeless way after Byzantine traditions, and degenerating, as time passes, into positive ugliness. The few miniatures of other descrip-tions, such as Biblical illustrations, show no great merit, and a half-barbaric splendour was generally preferred to artistic effect. But an exception must be made in regard to the style of drawing found in the MS. known, on account of its present resting-place, as the Utrecht Psalter. This volume is filled from beginning to end with delicately drawn pen illustrations, designed and executed with a facility which, compared wiih the mechanical and clumsy drawing of other Continental MSS. of the period, is astonish-ing. And these drawings are of particular interest for us, as they are of the style which was adopted in England and which gives to Anglo-Saxon art its distinctive aspect. Executed about the year 800 or early in the 9th century, and probably in the north of France, the volume was soon brought to England, where, however, MSS. of the same kind, it may be assumed, had long before been intro-duced. The light " fluttering " outlines of the drapery and other details of the drawings seem to suggest that the original models were derived directly from Roman life, and perhaps partly copied from sculpture; but those models must have gone through many modifications before passing into the style of the drawings of the Psalter. That the MS. was copied from an older one there can be scarcely a doubt; and it is not impossible that the original archetype may date back some centuries earlier. May not MSS. which St Augustine and his successors brought from Rome have contained drawings of the same kind 1 This style of drawing was, at all events, adopted and became nationalized in England; but it had there a rival in the Irish school of , ornamentation, introduced from the north of the island. The early civilization of Ireland placed her in the van of art development in these islands. The wonderfully intricate interlaced designs which render Irish MSS. of the 7th and 8th centuries such marvels of exact workmanship derive their origin, in all probability, from the metal-work of earlier ages. But, apart from ornamentation, the Irish miniatures of saints and evangelists are extraordinary and grotesque instances of purely mechanical drawing, which cause us to wonder how the same eyes and hands which assisted in the creation of such beautiful specimens of pure ornament could tolerate such caricatures of the human shape. The explanation is perhaps to be found in super-stitious regard for tradition. This style of art was carried by the monks to Iona and thence to Lindisfarne, where was founded the school which produced^ in the 8th and 9th centuries, the richly ornamented codices of Durham. While, then, Byzantine models were copied on the Contine'nt, the free drawing introduced from the south and the intricate ornamentation brought in from the north were practised in England; but the free drawing, with its accompanying decoration copied from foliage, and gradually developing into beautiful borders harmoniously coloured, gained the day, and lasted down to the time of the Norman Conquest. The one great fault of this latter style of drawing strikes the eye at the first glance. This is the inordinate length of limb with which the human figures are endowed. But this blemish is forgotten when one comes to appreciate the many points of merit in the designs.

In Italy, after a long period of inactivity, two very different styles of decoration of MSS. sprang into existence. The first of these was that of the Lombardic school, which is distinguished by intricate patterns and bright colouring. The large initial letters which are found in the MSS. of the 11th and 12th centuries, the best period of this style, are often a perfect maze of interlaced bands and animal forms, and are extremely handsome and effective. Figure drawing, however, seems to have been but little practised by the Lombardic artists, but such as there is appears on a broad scale and well executed. In the collections of Monte Cassino are some of the best examples of this school. In the second style which developed in Italy the Byzantine influence is at first most marked. Indeed, among its early specimens of the 13th century are some which might pass for the work of Greek artists. But the genius of the Italians soon assimilated the foreign element, and produced a national school which spread throughout the peninsula and afterwards extended its influence to southern France and Spain. It is, however, remarkable that in a country which produced such fine pictures and wall-paintings at an early date there is com-paratively little miniature painting in contemporary MSS. A curious and early instance of this kind of art occurs in a MS. in the British Museum, written and ornamented with a series of miniatures at Winchester, in the 12th century, in which are two paintings which are purely Italian and of more than ordinary excellence.

In the majority of the extant Italian miniatures of the 14th century the influence of the great artists of the Florentine school is manifest. The peculiar treatment of flesh tints, painted in body colour over a foundation of olive-green, and the peculiar vermilion and other colours which need be but once seen to be ever afterwards recog-nized as belonging to this school, are constantly present. The figures are generally rather shortened and the drapery carried in straight folds, very different characteristics from i the swaying figures and flowing drapery of the English and French artists of the same period. The ornamentation which accompanied this stylo of miniature generally , consists of heavy scrolls and foliated or feather-like ; pendants from the initial letters, with spots of gold set here and there in the border. There are also extant some examples of a most beautiful kind of ornamentation which appears to have originated in central Italy, and which seems to partake of the qualities of both the styles of Italian art of which we have been speaking, combining the drawing of the Florentine school with a lighter colour-ing which may have been suggested by the Lombardic.

Of native Spanish miniature art little can be- said. In the Visigothic MSS. of the early Middle Ages there is no ornament beyond roughly coloured initial letters and some barbaric figure drawing. A little later, however, we get some indication of national peculiarities in the MSS. of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries. Here there appear miniatures, stiff and rude in their drawing, but exhibiting the unmistakable Spanish predilection for sombre colours, —dusky reds and yellows and even black entering largely into the compositions.

The materials at our disposal of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries show the gradual development in France and western Germany of a fine free-hand drawing which was encouraged by the proportionately increasing size of books. Both in outline and colour the fully de-veloped miniatures of the 12th century are on a grand scale; and initial letters formed of scrolls and interlacings assume the same proportions. The figure drawing of this time is frequently of great excellence, the limbs being well-proportioned ; care is also bestowed upon the arrangement of the drapery, which is made to follow the shape and, as it were, to cling to the body.

But the great revulsion from the broad effects and bold grandeur of the 12th century to the exact details and careful finish of the 13th century is nowhere more striking than in miniature painting in MSS. With the opening of the new period we enter on a new world of ideas. Large books generally disappear to give place to smaller ones; minute writing supersedes the large hand; and miniatures appear in circumscribed spaces in the interior of initial letters. The combination of the miniature with the initial brings it into close connexion with the ornamental border, which develops pari passu with the growth of the minia-ture and by degrees assumes the same national and distinctive characteristics. Burnished gold was now also freely used, tending to give the miniature a more decorative character than formerly. In England, northern France, and the Netherlands the style of miniature painting of this period was much the same in character; and it is often difficult to decide from which of these countries a MS. is derived. English work, however, may be often distinguished by its lighter colouring, while deeper and more brilliant hues and a peculiar reddish or copper tinge in the gold marks French origin. The drawing of the Flemish artists was scarcely so good, the outlines being frequently heavy and the colours rather dull. Of the Rhenish or Cologne school examples are more scarce; but they generally show greater contrasts in the colours, which, though brilliant, are not so pleasing. As the century advanced, and particularly at its close, national distinctions became more defined. English artists paid more attention to graceful drawing and depended less upon colour. In some of their best productions they are satisfied with slightly tinting the figures, finding room in the backgrounds for display of brilliant colours and gilding. In France the drawing, though exact, is hardly so graceful, and colour plays a more important part. From the 13th to the middle of the 15th century great decorative effect is obtained by the introduction of diapered or other highly ornamented backgrounds. Of landscape, properly so called, there is but little, a conventional hill or tree being often taken as sufficient indication. Borders begin in the 13th century in the form of simple pendants from the initial letters, terminating in simple buds or cusps. But once arrived fairly in the 14th century, a rapid development in all parts of the decoration of MSS. takes place. There is greater freedom in the drawing; the borders begin to throw out branches and the bud expands into leaf. This is the best period of English miniature painting, many of the fine MSS. of this century which are preserved in the public libraries bearing witness to the skill and delicate touch of native artists. In France the decoration of MSS. received a great impetus from the patronage of King John and Charles V., of whose famous libraries many handsome volumes are still to be seen; and later in the century the duke of Berri carried on the same good work.

With regard to miniature art in Germany there are so few examples to guide us that little can be said. Most of them are rough in both drawing and colouring; and in the few remaining specimens of really good work foreign influence is distinctly seen. In the west the art of France and Flanders, and in the south that of Italy, are pre-dominant. Perhaps the finest MS. of this southern style to be seen in England is a Psalter belonging to Lord Ashburnham, which was probably executed in the 14th century at Prague, and is full of miniatures which in drawing and colouring follow the Italian school.

When we enter the 15th century we find great changes in both the great English and French schools. In England the graceful drawing of the previous century has disappeared. At first, however, some beautiful examples of purely native work were produced, and still remain to excite our admiration. Probably the most perfect of these MSS. are the Sherborne Missal belonging to the duke of North-umberland, and a very beautiful volume, a Book of Hours, in the library of Lord Ashburnham. The care bestowed upon the modelling of the features is particularly noticeable in English work of this period. In decoration the border of the 14th century had by this time grown to a solid frame surrounding the page; but now another form of most effec-tive ornament was also used, consisting of twisted feather-like scrolls brightly coloured and gilt. As the century advanced native English work died out, and French and then Flemish influence stepped in.

In France immense activity was shown all through the 15th century in the illumination and illustration of books of all kinds, sacred and profane; and it is in the MSS. of that country, and, a little later, in those of the Low Countries, that we can most exactly watch the transition from mediaeval to modern painting. Early in the century there were executed in France some of the most famous MSS. which have descended to us. In these the colouring is most brilliant, the figure drawing fairly exact; and the landscape begins to develop. The border has grown from the branching pendant to a framework of golden sprays or of conventional and realistic leafage and flowers. Towards the middle of the century the diaper disappears for ever, and the landscape is a recognized part of the miniature; but perspective is still at fault, and the mystery of the horizon is not solved until the century is well advanced. And now Flemish art, which had long lain dormant, sprang into rivalry with its French sister, under the stimulus given to it by the Van Eycks, and the struggle was carried on, but unequally, through the rest of the century. French art gradually deteriorates; the miniatures become flat and hard; nor are these defects compensated for by the meretricious practice of heightening the colours by pro-fusely touching them with gold. The Flemish artists, on the other hand, went on improving in depth and softness of colouring, and brought miniature painting to rare perfec-tion. The borders also which they introduced gave scope for the study of natural objects. Flowers, insects, birds, and jewels were painted in detached groups on a solid framework of colour surrounding the page.

But if, as the 15th century drew to its close, the Flemings had outstripped their French rivals, they had now more powerful antagonists to contend with. The Italians had been advancing with rapid strides towards the glories of the Renaissance. Early in the century there arose a taste for older models. As, for their writing and afterwards for their printing, they went back to the 11th and 12th centuries for their standards, so they adopted again the interlacing designs of the Lombardic school for their orna-ment, and produced beautiful borders of twining patterns relieved by colour ; or they took natural objects for their models, and painted borders of delicate flowers made still more brilliant with clustering stars of gold. Later, they drew from the ancient classical designs inspiration for the wonderful borders of arabesques, medallions, griffins, human forms, antique objects, &c, which they brought to such perfection early in the next century. Their miniatures rose to the rank of exquisitely finished pictures, and were executed by some of the best artists working under the patronage of such great houses as those of Sforza and Medici.

Here then, having advanced to the threshold of the domain of modern painting, we leave these two great schools of miniaturists in possession of the west of Europe. The Flemings had the wider field ; they were wanderers from home; and their works are scattered through many lands, from England in the north to Spain in the south. But Italian art had greater inherent strength, and will always hold the first rank. To instance a few of the more famous MSS. of this closing period of miniature painting: the Breviary of Isabella the Catholic, in the British Museum, is a masterpiece of Flemish art produced in Spain; the Grimani Breviary at Venice is another fine example of the same school. Some beautiful Italian miniatures (executed for Leo X. and others) were in the collection lately sold by the duke of Hamilton. The earl of Ashburnham possesses a most delicately illuminated Book of Hours written for Lorenzo dei Medici by the famous scribe Sinibaldo in 1485, as well as a MS. to which Perugino and his contemporaries contributed paintings. And in one MS., a Book of Hours belonging to Mr Malcolm of Poltalloch, are gathered some of the best miniatures of both schools, viz., a series of exquisite paintings by Milanese artists supplemented by later ones of the finest Flemish type. (E. M. T.)

The above article was written by: E. Maude Thompson.

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