Illustrating the Books

By Pepper, Tara | Newsweek International, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Illustrating the Books


Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International


The most familiar artists of the 15th-century Renaissance--Masaccio, Michelangelo and Donatello--flourished under the Tuscan sun, producing rich, iconic images for Italian cathedrals, public buildings and the churches of wealthy patrons like the Medicis. Even the less prominent Renaissance stars of northern Europe, like Jan van Eyck and Gerard David, are becoming increasingly appreciated in their own right. Now a new exhibit at London's Royal Academy of Arts highlights one of the few remaining unexplored genres of the period: illuminated manuscripts. "Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe" (through Feb. 22) brings together more than 190 exquisitely crafted works for the first time.

Renaissance oil paintings can be found in museums across the world, but many of the manuscripts are so fragile they have never been displayed in public. The Royal Academy show reveals an unexpected gold mine: a series of manuscripts stunningly illustrated with plates painted in a gum-and-egg-white mixture, then colored with different pigments. They affirm and deepen the significance of northern Europe's Renaissance. Within the illuminations' detailed depictions of nature and human expression, the curators locate the germs of later artistic innovations, including landscape painting and miniature portraits.

Though many illuminated books were lavish and costly, intended to demonstrate their owner's wealth and power, most were commissioned for use in moments of private prayer. That makes this show a wonderful change from most exhibits of Renaissance art, where crowds jostle for space in front of a single work. Masaccio's altarpieces were intended to be seen by entire church congregations, but only one person at a time can gaze into each illumination. Viewers are drawn first to the tiny, eye-catching details in the foreground of each picture--a hand gesture or a face animated in conversation. Then the turrets of a distant fairy-tale castle or sheep grazing on a faraway hill draw the eye deeper and deeper into the story, offering a moment of peaceful, solitary contemplation. …

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