Illuminating the Renaissance: Scot McKendrick Introduces a Major New Exhibition of Flemish Manuscript Illumination Opening at the Royal Academy

By McKendrick, Scot | History Today, December 2003 | Go to article overview
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Illuminating the Renaissance: Scot McKendrick Introduces a Major New Exhibition of Flemish Manuscript Illumination Opening at the Royal Academy


McKendrick, Scot, History Today


AT THE DAWN OF THE MODERN ERA Western European manuscript illumination enjoyed a truly remarkable final flourishing. During the period that is renowned for its high artistic achievements--the Renaissance--exponents of the quintessential medieval art form reasserted their capacity for artistic invention and innovation. Their art enabled the hand-written book to prove astonishingly resilient even one hundred years after the introduction of printing. Their most accomplished works, rich in vibrant colour, complex imagery and spatial interplay, rivalled the most renowned painted panels of the period.

Most notably illuminators working in what now forms parts of Belgium and northern France--loosely termed Flemish illuminators--created extravagant and lavish manuscripts in which the appearance of the illustrated page was revitalised and given new direction. Many illustrations painted by them between about 1470 and 1560 echo the masterful handling of colour, light, texture and space that such great early Netherlandish painters as Jan van Eyck (d. 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) had achieved in their portraits and religious paintings painted in oil on panel. Many that were painted in deluxe copies of the lay person's most common prayer book, the Book of Hours, project their subjects with a vividness and emotional power equal to that of the famous panel paintings of the Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes (d. 1482). Others include landscapes that were at least equal in sophistication and complexity to those long admired in early Netherlandish panel paintings and at best anticipated the famous panoramas of Pieter Breugel the Elder.

Illustrations of secular texts also show Flemish illuminators to have been remarkably inventive, capable of illustrating a wide range of romances, ancient histories, chronicles of contemporary history, and moral and practical treatises. Apart from tapestries, manuscripts are largely alone among surviving works from the Low Countries to attest to Flemish artists' abilities in illustrating secular subjects.

Flemish illuminators also experimented with the content of the decorated borders that by convention articulated important divisions of a text and accompanied illustrations set within miniatures and initials. Previously two-dimensional in format and decorative in function, these borders began to mirror the naturalism of the pictures that they sat alongside and explore further spatial interrelationships between text, image and viewer. Most well-known among such borders are the so-called scatter or strew flower borders in which flowers, fruit and insects are depicted as though they had just fallen on the border of imitation gold that surrounds either text or image. Frequently reproduced in modern times, these flower borders are widely regarded as the most characteristic element of Flemish illuminated manuscripts. Other less well-known types of border play with the illusion that the illumination continues across the whole page, linking each of the four sides of the border, and passing underneath the central text. Some appear to continue the subject of a miniature, but do so in such a way that the miniature resembles a zoom-in detail from the full-page image, the outline of which is suggested by the borders.

For the most part Flemish illuminators were commercial or professional artisans who worked for money. Their art was, like that of other medieval art forms, a craft handed down from one generation to another and taught by master to apprentice. While most Flemish illuminations remain attributable only to anonymous masters, many call be assigned to named artists. The success and high abilities of such illuminators as Simon Marmion (d.1489), of Valenciennes, and Simon Bening (d.1561), of Bruges, are thus mirrored in not only surviving works by them but also in contemporary records. According to such records Marmion was regarded as 'prince of illuminators' and Bening 'the greatest master of the art of illumination in all Europe'.

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