Miniature masterpiece

Annie Harris

Annie Harris looks at the Renaissance art of manuscript illumination

The words "illumination" and "illustration" have the same meaning: "that which throws light on." Medieval illuminated manuscripts dazzled with miniature images, designed to throw light on the text as well as literally gleaming with light from the decorative use of gold leaf. An exhibition currently at the Royal Academy of Arts presents the flowering of the art of book illumination during the Flemish Renaissance, from about 1470 to 1560.

Exquisite miniatures, like this image of Mary of Burgundy, are shown, with some of the beautifully decorated manuscripts that they illustrate.

The art of illumination had been established in the Low Countries (now approximately the Netherlands and Belgium) since the early 13th-century, especially in Flemish cities like Bruges and Ghent. Many of the books whose pages are on display were commissioned by the dukes of Burgundy at the height of their power in this region, during the second half of the 15th-century. When their power waned, the tradition of Flemish manuscripts continued to prosper, through the patronage of the Spanish and Portuguese courts, until the introduction of printing finally led to its decline.

Illuminated manuscripts were enviable treasures, and there was intense competition to develop the most illustrious libraries. From devotional texts, powerful princes derived religious and moral values, and in secular texts they could identify with heroes of the past, as role models whose stories they could also use to justify their own conquests and adventures.

You can imagine the dukes listening to the stories and marvelling at the jewel-like pictures as they sat in their chambers or, since favourite books were also carried into the battlefield, in their campaign tents.

Most of the works are on parchment, some are on paper and a few are oil paintings on wooden panels. The artists sought to draw together the past and the present, bringing religious and secular stories up to date by showing their subjects in Renaissance costumes and placing them in contemporary settings so that viewers could more easily identify with them.

So the exhibition also allows us to study aspects of northern Renaissance daily life, although in an idealised form.

How were the books produced? Each city boasted artists of all kinds. Most belonged to a guild - a sort of trade union that protected its members from outside competition and guaranteed standards. As an example of a guild's membership, in the city of Tournai there was the following hierarchy: those who could paint everything; illuminators; playing-card makers; painters on paper; makers of coloured-paper reliefs; painters of toys, parrot perches and flower pots; and house painters. As far as manuscripts were concerned, the bottom end of the market consisted of hand-coloured drawings on paper, while at the top the most sought-after artists created elaborate and lavish works in gold and expensive pigment on parchment.

Various people, ranging from the illuminators themselves to, in one case, the Portuguese trade secretary in Antwerp, would take on the task of co-ordinating the production of a book: the manuscript and illumination, the decoration of the initials and the binding. The parchment (prepared sheep- or goat-skin) was first covered with a chalk ground that, as well as protecting it, created a smooth surface for the artist's pen or brush, and could be scraped off and replaced if he or she made a mistake. Miniatures were usually painted in coloured pigment mixed with gum and egg-white (glair), called tempera.

Pages were kept separate in case of error until the last minute, when they were sewn on to leather bands and attached to boards. The whole was then covered with skin or cloth and often embellished with metalwork and the owner's coat of arms. Then the book might be presented in a lavish ceremony to its princely commissioner. Sometimes, a miniature showing this very presentation formed the frontispiece of the book.

Who were the illuminators? We do not know the names even of some of the most talented, though some "miniaturista" could be famous in their own right. For example, the painter of "Mary of Burgundy (?) Reading Her Devotions", is known to us simply as the "Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy". His works have been allocated to him on the basis of style.

In this unusual miniature, the artist has transformed what was, traditionally, a richly decorative border into the realistic depiction of the space near a window, where we see a young girl (most probably Charles the Bold's sister, Mary of Burgundy), seated, reading the very book of hours for which this miniature was itself painted. A book of hours is a prayer book that begins with a calendar showing the illustrated months, and ends with the eight hours of the Virgin, which correspond to the Roman Catholic prayer services: matins, the Annunciation; lauds, the Visitation; prime, Nativity; tierce, the Annunciation to the shepherds; sext, the adoration of the Magi; none, the presentation in the temple; vespers, the flight into Egypt; compline, the coronation of the Virgin.

In this picture, the artist has created the illusion of an intimate vision arising from contemplation of the book of hours, as if the very act of reading has been so intense that it has generated the reality of the coronation of the Virgin nearby. The close and tangible presence of the material world, with its flowers and jewels on the windowsill in the foreground, creates a striking contrast with the soaring spiritual space of the cathedral behind. It is as if the image in the mind's eye of the reader has been made visible by the painter as a metaphor for the act of contemplation.

When we emerge from an exploration of one of these tiny paintings, it is amazing to find how large, even monumental, they seemed while we were in there, and how such a small picture can give access to such complex worlds.

Illuminating the Renaissance: the Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe is at the Royal Academy of Arts until February 22. For education guide, primary workshops and gallery talks and visits for primary and secondary, Tel: 020 7300 5995

Annie Harris is head of education at the Royal Academy

Lesson ideas

Key stages 12

* Draw a rectangle in the middle of a piece of paper in faint pencil. Then carefully write out your favourite poem in the rectangle, making sure to leave a large space in the top left-hand corner for the first letter of the poem. Design and decorate the first letter and decorate the border to illustrate the poem.

* Choose a moment in a favourite story and illustrate it in minute detail on a very small piece of paper, using paints, coloured pencils or felt tips (and gold, if possible).


* Choose the month that has your zodiac sign and make a miniature that illustrates typical activities you might be doing in that month, placing them in a landscape or interior and making them as realistic as possible.

Place yourself somewhere in the miniature.

* Write out your favourite poem, using a decorative script and leaving a border. Enlarge and decorate the first letter of the poem and the border.

* Research Flemish Renaissance daily life through studying miniatures from the exhibition, or on the website. Subjects to study might by housing, light, heat, clothing, food, leisure activities, religion, war.


The Royal Academy:

The Getty Museum:

www.getty.eduartexhibitonsflemishhome.html The British Library:

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