A History of English Art in the Middle Ages

By O. Elfrida Saunders | Go to book overview

Chapter VI ROMANESQUE ART: ILLUMINATION

DURING the first half of the twelfth century we are dependent on illuminations alone for our knowledge of the development of artistic style in this country. The most important remaining manuscripts of the early twelfth century are from the east of England--the 'Life of St. Edmund' from Bury St. Edmunds, now in the Pierpont Morgan Collection in New York, and the Psalter from St. Albans Abbey in the library of St. Godehard at Hildesheim. The former contains a number of full-page coloured illustrations of scenes from the Saint's life, and the latter many curious illustrations of the words of the psalms, and other symbolical drawings. The figure-drawing in both is singularly devoid of charm. It betrays its descent from the indigenous style of the Bayeux Tapestry in the types represented, which are long and lanky, with flat chests, receding chins and no backs to their heads; and from the pre-Conquest drawings of the Anglo-Saxon School in the animated movements and gesticulations, the springy attitudes, and the small feet and ankles. But again in the Bury manuscript, with its brilliant colouring, rich detail, and love of formal scenes, an element derived from the Ottonian school of illumination in Germany is evident. St. Edmund, even when giving alms, is enthroned like a German Emperor, and his head is made twice the size of those of his followers, with a view to emphasizing his dignity and importance.

Another early twelfth-century manuscript, the volume of drawings in outline and wash from St. Albans Abbey, illustrating the 'Psychomachia' of Prudentius (Brit. Mus. Titus D. xvi) reflects the same ugly but lively style as the Hildesheim Psalter from the same abbey.

This somewhat primitive type of illumination is continued

-67-

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