IN the previous chapter we have pointed out that the veritable dawn of the Renaissance, as far as painting is concerned, was the beginning of the twelfth century, the vernal spring that followed the dark winter of the eleventh. The latter century was chiefly noted for the production of plentiful work in small objects of art, such as miniatures, ivory carvings, enamels, metal-work, and small portable mosaics. But wherever the human figure was used in the illustration of the subjects which formed the decoration of these minor works its general type was that of an ill-drawn or modelled, gaunt, and lifeless image of humanity, clothed in an extremely conventional way, with straight, parallel, and inorganic folds of drapery which had little or nothing in common with the surface forms of the body it was in-tended to clothe. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed, as we have seen, the creation of many large and important works in mosaic as the decoration of churches, before fresco painting in a later period was universally adopted as almost the chief occupation of the Italian painters.
Miniature painting has been mentioned as one of the minor arts largely practised in the eleventh century, and of course was so much earlier, and continued as the decoration or illustration of manuscripts until the date of the invention of printing, when coloured woodcuts took its place as book illustration.
Many of the compositions of large and important mosaics and frescoes during the whole period of the rise and development of painting in Italy and other countries were derived from, if not actually copies of, earlier miniatures. During the period of the Middle Ages, until the time of Giotto, and even after this, it was a common enough practice to enlarge the designs of earlier miniature paintings and use them as wall decorations, just as on the other hand the illustrators of manuscripts in Italy, Germany, France, and England adopted the designs of the wall paintings as subjects for the decoration of their own books. As far as colour, composition, and technique go, there is no reason why a miniature, if it be distinguished by excellence in these qualities, should not rank as an important example of art. Miniature painting has in the past been of undoubted service in helping the advancement of the larger forms of monumental painting, and for centuries in the so-called darkest ages it was the only kind of painting practised. We must therefore regard it as an important link in the development of modern art.
Miniatures were the illustrations of the text of illuminated manuscripts, or rather the more elaborate part of the decoration of the writing, sometimes occupying only a small portion of the written page, but sometimes more than the half, if not the whole page, the writing in the latter case generally occupying the opposite page of the vellum. In some instances, especially in the case of the more sumptuously illuminated manuscripts, the miniatures and decorative ornament occupy by far the greater amount of space in the volume.
Perhaps the oldest example of an illuminated manuscript is the Egyptian Book of the Dead, made for Ani, about 1500 B.C., which consists of a volume written and decorated on papyri leaves, and is now in the British Museum.
There are three very interesting examples of classical manuscripts which have miniatures painted on vellum that have survived to the present day. One of these is a copy of the Iliad of Homer, or rather fragments of the original manuscript, now in the Ambrosian Library at Milan. This is a Greco-Roman work of the third century. The other two are the smaller Virgil and the Codex Romanus, both in the Vatican Library. The smaller one, dating from about the fourth century, is known as the Vatican Virgil, and is much superior as an artistic production to the larger one, which is feeble in drawing and coarse in execution, and may have been produced any time between the fourth and sixth centuries.
The smaller Virgil has fifty miniatures, six of them being of the full size of the page : nine of the subjects are illustrations of the Georgics, and forty-one of the Æneid. The paintings vary in merit, showing the whole to be the work of two or three illustrators. The Georgics pictures are the best of the illustrations ; they display great freedom in the pose and drawing of the figures, and exhibit a masterly directness of touch in the execution. The landscapes, buildings, and animals show an advanced and intimate knowledge of painting from nature, which goes to prove that the art of the period had not yet reached the lowest depths of the decline towards which it was hastening. The colouring, like the execution, in these miniatures is unequal; in some cases, however, it is rich and harmonious, though as a rule the flesh-tints are of a bricky red. Black, white, green, blue, red, yellow, and gold are used, and each miniature is enclosed in a border of red, black, and white lines, and also gilt lozenges. Gold is used to heighten the soft draperies and accessories. Some of the poses of the single figures and some whole groups, are paraphrases of Greek statuary.
The Ambrosian Iliad is an older work than the smaller Vatican Virgil, and is quite different to it in style and treatment, being less pictorial in design and having more of a decorative or monumental character, especially in the composition of its best pictures. This would suggest in the case of some of its fifty-eight miniatures that comprise the fragment left of the book (which has been conjectured to have originally consisted of 240 leaves), that they have likely been copies of Greek wall paintings ; as the style of the designs is of a spacious and dignified character, more suited to wall painting than to smaller work. For example, the page which has the subject of ” The Trojan Women Sacrificing to Minerva,” might have well been a copy of a Greek or Greco-Roman wall decoration. Here is shown a tall and dignified woman at an altar, accompanied by five maidens, who form the left group of figures, and to balance this group there are figures of two soldiers disputing on the right, all being arranged in a symmetrical manner in front of a background of classical buildings. The colouring has a good deal of red, with white, purple, and a bright yellow. There is no gold used in the Iliad pictures.
Although there are some isolated examples of very fine work in these manuscript illustrations, the greater part shows the feebleness of the state of art in the third and fourth centuries in Italy, but a much greater degradation is shown in the third remaining classical manuscript, the larger Virgil in the Vatican Library, the Codex Romanus. This manuscript consists of 309 vellum leaves, and the designs, colouring, and execution are coarse and child-like, some of them being crude copies of wall paintings. The origin of this Codex is not exactly known, but it has inscriptions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, showing that it belonged to the Abbey of St. Denis, near Paris. The portrait of Virgil occurs three times in this book, copied from the old mosaic portrait of the poet, recently found at Susa.
The Joshua Roll, a Roman work, originally consisting of a large parchment thirty feet long by one foot in width, but now divided, and in a volume of fifteen leaves, is also in the Library of the Vatican. It represents scenes from the life of Joshua painted in the manner of the early Christian art at Rome. The figures and details are somewhat similar to the reliefs on the Trajan Column, and the designs are in brown outlines. The colouring is executed in parts in transparent rosy tints of water-colour in a sketchy manner, recalling the Pompeian wall decorations. Spirited groups of soldiers with classical uniforms, graceful goddesses personifying cities, rivers, and mountains, are all rendered in a lively and spontaneous manner. The date of the Joshua Roll is a subject of great controversy, the ninth and tenth centuries being generally suggested, but if any one of these dates is correct the design and drawing provide a strong reason to infer that it is a copy of a much older work, perhaps of the third or fourth centuries. As a proof of this, we may point out that some of the subjects are copies of, or may have provided the designs for, some mosaics of the fifth century, in the Church of St. Maria Maggiore. It is quite likely, however, that this interesting collection of designs comprises one of the many sets of miniature pictures so often used as patterns for mosaics and wall paintings. Wherever the figure of Joshua appears in this work, he is distinguished from the other figures by his greater height and also by his nimbus.
The Greek Menology, an illustrated calendar made for Basil II, (A.D. 976-1025), is preserved in the Vatican Library. It consists of a volume of 215 leaves, and contains many designs executed by the best Byzantine artists of the period at Constantinople, and is the most important surviving example of miniature painting of the tenth century. Some of the subjects of the illustrations in this Menology are identical with those of the mosaics of the Cathedral of Cefalù, in Sicily, and also with some of those in the Cathedral of Monreale. The foundation-stone of the church at Cefalù was laid in 1131, and the mosaics, according to the inscription on them, were begun in 1148 by order of King Roger. These mosaics are the oldest of the Norman period in Sicily. The earlier date of the Menology compared with the later one of the Cefalù mosaics, clearly proves that these miniatures, or copies of them, furnished the designs for the mosaics, and this is all the more likely to be the case when we bear in mind that the illustrators of the Menology and the mosaicists of Cefalù and Monreale were Byzantine artists of Constantinople. It is therefore reasonable to infer that the Greek mosaic workers carried with them a stock of ready-made and portable designs in the nature of miniature copies, and enlarged them as mosaic decorations in the churches of Sicily and of Southern Italy. The Menology, which only, however, extends to half of the year, September to February, is the most important surviving example of its class. It is the work of eight Greek artists, whose names appear on some of the pages, and is painted in lively and clear body colours, on a gold ground. The figures are painted on a preparation of verde, or grey-green ground, a practice followed out by Greek and Italian artists not only in some miniatures, but in panel pictures and often in fresco painting. Some of the compositions in the Menology are very fine, though the whole work is unequal, reflecting the degrees of ability of the various illustrators of the work. The subjects treated are scenes from the Life of Christ and the Saints, Martyrdoms of Saints, and various Biblical subjects. One scene represents the Saviour in glory, surrounded by the apostles, where the figure of the Saviour is noble in design and attitude, the apostles having the typical slender forms, though the heads are full of character and individuality. An Adoration of the Shepherds is of the typical composition which was often used by the later fresco painters of the Upper Church at Assisi, and in the mosaics by Cavallini, in the Church of St. Maria in Trastevere, near Rome, where also the Subject of the Nativity, one of the most beautiful of the Menology, is re-produced in the same series of mosaics with only a very slight variation. The figure groups in these minatures are generally well distributed, and in many cases almost symmetrically balanced. Most of the compositions have landscape settings, with the conventionally drawn rocks, hills, and mountains, so peculiar to Byzantine painting, and also in a great measure to the work of Giotto, Duccio, and the early Sienese masters, as well as to the work of Gozzoli, Mantegna, Fra Angelico, and other pre-Raphaelite Italian painters, where we find rocky slopes and barren truncated mountain-tops assuming a sort of basaltic formation expressed by a series of clustered pillar, or organ-pipe-like forms, spreading a little out at the base, and cut off flatly at intervals of unequal height. Although this highly stratified, and vertical-like rock and mountain formation represented a very conventional view of the natural reality, yet there is much to be said for its use in monumental or decorative painting, and in the hands of a master such as Mantegna, it is used as a means of imparting dignity and grandeur to the general composition. This method of rock drawing, though generally characteristic of Byzantine art and of the Italian Primitives, has found favour with some modern artists, among whom we may mention the late Burne-Jones, who used such forms effectively in many of his paintings and decorative designs.
Another fine example of Byzantine art is found in the illustrations of the famous Paris Psalter, a work of the tenth century, executed at Constantinople and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris. This work, although all of its fourteen full-paged miniatures are not of equal merit, is unique on the whole as a work of great excellence, produced at a time when art was in a very low state of decadence, but goes to prove that here and there one or two artists even in the darkest ages of art, occasionally showed a decided power of expression and technical skill far above and beyond their contemporaries. The finest miniature in this Psalter is the well-known lyrical composition ” David and Melody,” which is designed in the best traditions of the Greek classical period, and has no trace of the usual Byzantine archaicism or stiffness in the drawing of the figures and draperies. If the subject were not the Biblical one that it is, we should imagine it to have been a copy of a Greek or Greco-Roman wall painting. David is represented seated in the centre of the picture, playing on the harp ; at his side on the left is the seated female figure, representing ” Melody ” ; on the right is the figure of ” Echo,” looking at the central group ; below are various animals charmed by the music, and seated at the entrance of a cave below is a male figure representing the city of Bethlehem. There is a strong reminiscence here of the classical theme of Orpheus charming the animal creation with his music, a subject often repeated in the Catacomb paintings, and in later times in mosaics and frescoes, where the figure of Christ was re-presented like that of Orpheus. Some of the other illustrations in this Psalter are of great merit in design and in freedom of execution, while others, evidently the work of illustrators of lesser ability than some of their collaborators in this manuscript, show the usual Byzantine characteristics in the lean and elongated figures with their tight and closely-clinging draperies. Evidently this Psalter has been widely known and recognized very early as a model worthy of copying, for many other miniatures of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries exist which are copies of those contained in the Paris Psalter, though generally inferior to them in execution.
A noteworthy series of miniatures illustrates the Codex Rossanensis, a Byzantine manuscript of the sixth century, preserved in the Cathedral of Rossano in Calabria. The subjects of the miniatures include scenes from the life of Christ, compositions which are common to those in many other manuscripts and which have been freely adopted by Duccio, Giotto, and many other artists of later times, as models for their own work; notably such scenes, as Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, The Raising of Lazarus, Gethsemane, and Christ before Pilate, where the design and figure grouping are little if at all altered. The subjects in this Codex are, many of them, identical in composition with those of the mosaics of the Sicilian churches.
The explanation, in a great measure, of the rigid observance of traditional composition of sacred subjects has been traced to the decrees of the Eastern Church, which were made and promulgated by the Nicene Council of prelates in A.D. 787. This assembly decided that the fathers of the Catholic Church would be responsible for the pictorial composition of Biblical subjects, and not the artist, he only being allowed to treat the subject in his own way as far as the methods of painting or execution concerned him, but the traditional composition would be the task of the fathers, and not the concern of the artist. Whether this arbitrary control by the Church of the artist’s imagination was a good thing or not for the advancement of art, is a moot question; if it tended, as no doubt it did, to the production of numerous works throughout subsequent centuries, which more or less had a family likeness to each other, on the other hand it served at least as a check on the production of, what might have been, the bizarre and extravagant rendering of sacred subjects by inferior artists ; and although it retarded, it did not ultimately prevent, as every one knows, the progress and development of genuine art in Italy. It was no doubt the decrepit state of art in the eighth century that led the holy fathers of the Greek Church to dictate to the artists of that period, for it can hardly be thought that a great artist engaged in the practice of a living art would tamely submit to the fettering of his imagination by either churchmen or laymen. We can therefore come to the conclusion that few if any artists, even of average ability, existed in the eighth century, unless we admit the craftsmen and copyists, who were engaged in the making and reproduction of various works in the minor and more purely decorative fields of art, as worthy members of the select company of creative and original artists.
The recipes for picture making invented by the fathers of the Greek Church are to this day still used by the modern Greek artists who paint the icons, or sacred pictures, which usually decorate the iconostasis, or great screen that separates the altar from the rest of the church in all countries where the Greek form of Christian religion prevails. The carrying out of the Nicean decrees, as far as art was concerned, was enormously helped on by the great number of craftsmen who were sent out from Constantinople, not only to Italy and the West of Europe, but also to the more northern Slavonic countries, where they were employed in executing great and small works in fresco and miniature painting, mosaic, enamels, metal-work, and carving, mostly as church decorations and ritual objects. Greek missionaries introduced Christianity and Byzantine art at the same time to the Slavonic nations, for the missionaries were also artists and craftsmen.
The sacred icons and the gaudy brilliance and stately ceremony of Byzantine worship appealed intensely to the Huns of Bulgaria, and more especially to the Russians, whose conversion to the Greek forms of Christianity was accomplished under Wladimir the Great, in A.D. 988, by the aid of the Byzantine monks from Constantinople. So to-day the devotee of the Greek Church regards the icon, which is still designed and painted as it was in the tenth century, as a sacred thing in itself, a sort of established fetish, the form of which can no more be altered than the established form of their religion itself. As art declined in the Byzantine Empire, even a greater decay came to it in the countries which had embraced the Greek Christianity, and the earlier works were simply copied and reproduced over and over again, each effort becoming more dreary, more sombre, gloomy, and lifeless than its predecessor, if that could be possible. The Russian and Bulgarian sacred pictures of Christ, the Madonna, and the Saints gradually assumed a dirty-brown colour in the flesh-tints, the figures becoming more sorrowful in expression, having elongated heads and lifeless hands and feet, all painted very flatly in accordance with recipes and Byzantine traditions. The draperies, however, were not only rendered in gorgeous colouring, which became more gaudy than harmonious, but they were often, and are now, made of thin metal-work of silver and gold, but sometimes of tinsel, and executed in embossed or repoussé work and made to stick out from the painted flesh portions of the picture. These productions from their weird appearance may be classed as artificial spectres of sacred personages rather than objects of art. The manufacture of these works was carried on chiefly by monks and nuns in the monasteries, who simply used tracings of old Byzantine designs, and reproduced them in great quantities, after the old recipes.
Manuscript directions by some of the old Byzantine artists for the use of painters and decorators still exist, and for centuries during the Middle Ages, and later, churches and monasteries were decorated with subjects and coloured in accordance with the directions laid down in these old manuscripts. One of these Greek guide-books, or manuals, was said to have been compiled by Pansellinos, a Byzantine painter monk of Thessalonica, who died in the eleventh or twelfth century, but this manuscript was quite likely a copy of a still older document, for such manuals were used by Greek artists as far back as the sixth century.
M. Didron, the French archeologist, relates that when he visited the Monastery of Mount Athos, in Greece, where there are over 900 churches, chapels and oratories, he found nearly all of these filled with frescoes, and he had an opportunity of seeing the monks decorating a monastery wall with frescoes, the work being executed in accordance with the directions laid down in a fifteenth century copy of an old Byzantine manuscript, or manual, compiled by the monk Dionysius of the Monastery of Furna, near Agrapha, assisted by his pupil, Cyril of Chio. Didron found that the monks at Mount Athos possessed several copies of this manual. At this place thousands of sacred pictures on wood are painted and exported to Russia, Turkey, Greece, and the Balkan States, for it has been noted for the last few centuries as the Academy of Greek painting, where most Greek artists go to study and practise their profession, and here, at Mount Athos, the painter-monk, Pansellinos, is still regarded as the founder of the present style of Byzantine painting.
The old manuals contained written directions of the technical processes of painting in fresco and on wood panels, explaining single figures, modes of grouping them, their distribution on the walls, their attributes, and inscriptions ; also how tracings were to be made, the preparation of the wall, the nature of the colours, and the grinding of them, as well as the methods of technique. They also supplied directions for the treatment and design of every possible sacred figure and scene, and also for their proper situation on the church walls. The same directions served usually for the subjects of miniature paintings of Byzantine origin, and were even carried out in many of the early French, German, and Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts. It may be seen from this how completely the influence of the Greek Church acted as a petrifying element for the conservation of the rigid and monotonous forms of Byzantine art, by preventing any expression of the artist’s imaginative powers, and so reducing him to the level of a mechanical craftsman or artisan.
Before the days of Cimabue, however, there were many signs in Italy, and also in France, that art was gradually becoming unshackled from its Byzantine bondage of centuries, and in contrast to the rigid and mechanical copies of Greek painting there arose a new and a living art, Western in its conception, based, it is true, on the older traditions, but impregnated with a new breath of life, that came from a study of nature ; but its most precious quality was the tentative expression of the artist’s individuality which here and there came to light, a new and rare characteristic which was certainly absent from the later phases of Byzantine art.
The great Umbrian school of painting, developed in Perugia, Urbino, and Gubbio, that produced such famous masters as Perugino, and his great pupil Raffaelle, arose from an early school of miniature painters, among the chiefest of whom were Oderisio and Franco Bolognese, both being contemporaries of Dante and Giotto, and who are mentioned by Dante in his Purgatorio, Canto XI. The early Umbrian painting, as well as much of Perugino’s work, bear the distinct characteristics of miniature painting, such as the light, gay, and transparent colouring, precision of touch, and neatness in execution, and also having a good display of delicate and tasteful ornamentation.