Magazine article The Spectator

Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe

Magazine article The Spectator

Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 1 Revelations in miniature Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe Sackler Wing, Royal Academy, until 22 February 2004

Manuscript illumination has been called 'the quintessential mediaeval art form' - and indeed the idea of a monk sitting in his cell carefully embellishing a parchment to the greater glory of God is a very Middle Ages image - yet it achieved its last and perhaps most splendid triumph in the period we think of as the Renaissance. There is an irony at work here, showing once more that an art form cannot be so easily confined to a particular period of history, and neatly tabulated to please art historians. Movements and styles coexist and overlap. If we think of the Renaissance as primarily witnessing the triumph of fresco painting, it is instructive to be reminded that the period 1470-1560 was also one of supremely high achievement in manuscript illumination, and that, 100 years after the advent of printing, handwritten books were still being made as luxury items of Court art.

Right at the beginning of the exhibition is a large book from the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels, a copy of the Chroniques de Hainaut, open at its remarkable frontispiece attributed to that most influential of 15th-century painters, Rogier van der Weyden. Immediately, one of the central issues of this exhibition is raised - the two-way traffic between illuminators and panel painters. Who influenced whom the most? An all-rounder like Simon Marmion, whose gorgeous 'Choir of Angels' panel (from the National Gallery) is exhibited nearby, was hailed as 'the prince of illumination', but was equally important as a panel painter. Which way did the influence and inspiration run? In which medium were artists being the most innovative? It seems likely that a kind of cross-pollination took place, and that there were discoveries and inventions in both camps, many of which must have been accessible to all parties. It was, after all, a period of great artistic energy and exchange.

Simon Marmion (c. 1425-89) is a key figure, painting such unforgettable sights as 'The Valley of Murderers', with its scarlet throbbing cauldron, one of the leaves from Les Visions du chevalier Tondal. He also painted half the miniatures (see The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine') in the smallest of the first Books of Hours with the new type of illusionistic border known as 'scatter-flower'. In these borders, the flowers and fruits, birds and insects are depicted realistically as if actually present on the page. The miniature image within the borders is thus further miniaturised, and complex spatial relationships are pursued.

What colours we are to behold shining forth in this exhibition - such greens, such blues, such reds, and over all, the rich glow of gold. (The intensity of the colours is partially explained by the superb condition of the manuscripts, most of which have been preserved away from light.) Look at the unearthly blue curtain edged and striated with gold in Lucas or Susanna Horenbout's 'Saint Luke'. Or the gold-shrouded feet disappearing through the top of the frame in Simon Bening's 'Ascension' from a Rosary Psalter.

Simon Bening (c. 1483-1561) must be the outstanding artist of this final efflorescence of Flemish manuscript painting. His command of complicated narrative, and his particular skill in depicting landscape, together with a sure eye for space and colour, make him a master. …

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