By Cork, Richard
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4670
Now that so much contemporary art is space-hungry, demanding colossal rooms for ever more elaborate installations, the hand-painted books assembled at the Royal Academy seem even more astonishing. Here, the images are so small that you really need a magnifying glass to appreciate them properly. Most Flemish manuscript illumination from the Renaissance period was meant to be studied at very close quarters. And infatuated owners often lavished enormous amounts of time on these exquisite images.
Mary of Burgundy, daughter of Charles the Bold, looks completely rapt as she holds her book of devotions. One picture painted within the text seems to transport her to a more spiritual realm. The window beyond shows her kneeling in a graceful gothic cathedral, overcome to find herself praying before the Virgin and child accompanied by four solemn angels.
This miniature, a tour de force by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy, conveys the wonder felt by patrons who commissioned such sumptuous volumes. Their modest dimensions only increased the paintings' ability to captivate. And we in turn are amazed to discover how skilful these artists could be, producing work just as impressive as many far larger paintings installed as altarpieces in the grandest religious buildings.
The Hours of Mary of Burgundy were probably executed in the early 1470s, near the beginning of the period surveyed by the Royal Academy's unmissable show "Illuminating the Renaissance". Charles the Bold had just succeeded his father, Philip the Good, as Duke of Burgundy. And over the next century, artists in Renaissance Flanders brought the great tradition of book-painting to new levels of accomplishment and invention. They were inspired above all by the formidable achievements of their predecessors. Rogier van der Weyden, who died in 1464, had been renowned as a consummate master of oil-painting on panel. But he was also adept at painting in tempera on parchment, the very different technique required for manuscript illumination.
The RA show is prefaced by an extraordinary rarity: van der Weyden's frontispiece for the Chroniques de Hainaut, a history of the province conquered by Philip some years earlier. The duke, elegantly arrayed in fashionable black damask, dominates the miniature. Young Charles the Bold stands beside him, resplendent in a sumptuous golden doublet. Surrounded by haughty courtiers, both duke and heir gaze down with imperious fascination at the kneeling Jean Wauquelin, who offers to Philip his weighty translation of the Chroniques.
The entire scene, realised with a sophisticated grasp of stately ritual, demonstrates the immense importance that the Burgundians attached to illuminated books. They were enormously proud of their prowess as book producers. Monarchs, rulers and aristocrats throughout Europe vied with each other to acquire prayer books and secular texts illustrated by the finest artists in Flanders. Simon Marmion was among the most highly prized painters. Margaret of York, who became Charles the Bold's third wife, cherished one of Marmion's outstanding cycles of illuminations for Les Visions du Chevalier Tondal, a masterpiece of infernal literature written by a medieval monk.
Marmion is at his most arresting in The Beast Acheron: devourer of the avaricious. Infra-red reflectography has recently disclosed that he started out painting a mountain next to Acheron, whose titanic mouth gapes open to reveal tormented figures burning within. But Marmion finally decided to obliterate the mountain with blackness, thereby focusing our attention on Acheron's fiery furnace. …