Boucicaut Master

By Mark-Walker, Diane; Vihos, Lisa | School Arts, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Boucicaut Master


Mark-Walker, Diane, Vihos, Lisa, School Arts


This manuscript page is from a book that was illustrated by an artist working in the early 1400s in France known today as the Boucicaut (BOO-see-koh) Master. The name Boucicaut derives from the identification of this artist's hand in a manuscript made for a patron named Boucicaut; his real name remains a mystery to us. We know only that this artist was influential in Paris, contributing to the great innovations that were taking place in painting, including the three-dimensional representation of space and the use of expressive gesture to convey human emotion. The art of the Boucicaut Master represents a transition between earlier artistic traditions of the Middle Ages and new ideas about picture making that blossomed during the Renaissance.

The text of the book is a French translation of a work by the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (boh-KAH-chee-oh) (1313-1375). Concerning the Fates of Illustrious Men and Women tells the stories of famous people from biblical times up to Boccaccio's own day and the often cruel destinies they faced following their rise to power.

The Context

Illuminated manuscripts are books written and decorated entirely by hand. Before the invention of the printing press in Europe in 1455, such books were among the most precious objects made. They were often decorated with costly, colorful pigments as well as gold and silver.

Many hands went into the making of a book. First, a craftsman prepared the pages of the book from calf, sheep, or goat skin. Then, a scribe ruled the pages and copied down the words, often from a text written many centuries earlier. An illuminator, like the Boucicaut Master, then created elaborate paintings to accompany the text. Finally, a binder put all the pages together to make a book. It was a time-consuming and expensive process. We don't know who originally owned this book, but you can be sure that the person was proud of it, sharing it with friends as a sign of status and good taste.

The Work

The Boucicaut Master began this book with a colorful and detailed illustration of the story of Adam and Eve. He placed the pivotal moment--when Adam and Eve are tempted to eat fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge--in the center. The events that follow are arranged in clockwise order around the garden enclosure, starting on the left with an angel driving Adam and Eve out of Eden. At the top, Adam toils in the field while Eve spins wool and tends a flock, their punishment for disobeying God's command. An elderly and stooped Adam and Eve at the bottom right approach Boccaccio at his lectern in the lower left corner to relate their story. The elaborate border is filled with leafy, spiraling vines and rich blue columbine and cornflower blossoms. The small miniatures set into the border depict six scenes from the Bible's account of the creation of the world, starting on the upper right and proceeding clockwise. At the top center of the page is a medallion of the Lord blessing the entire scene.

For the Viewer

The Boucicaut Master carefully posed each figure and gave them telling gestures that dramatize the story. For example, compare Adam's proud, upright stance in the central scene with the shame, fear, and longing that his hunched posture, poignant hand gestures, and backward glance convey as he is banished from the garden.

When examining this and other illuminated manuscript pages, it's important to look at the page in its entirety, including the text and borders--try not to focus on just the "picture" part. Viewing the Boucicaut Master's page as a whole reveals how the artist saw the story of Adam and Eve as the culminating scene in the larger story of the creation of the world, which included the creation of Adam and Eve. It also helps you appreciate the careful balancing of border, text, and image; the symmetrical layout; and how the artist used deep blues throughout the page to unify it and splashes of red and deep rose to enliven it. …

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