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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Drawing in the Middle Ages

Drawing is one of the most fundamental forms of artistic expression. The mesmerizing drawings from the caves of Lascaux and elsewhere in Europe provide some of the best evidence of the timeless compulsion to make pictures with outline, yet beyond those cave pictures, it is much harder to conjure up in the mind’s eye accomplished instances of draftsmanship before the period known as the Italian Renaissance. At that moment, of course, drawing seems to take on new significance. The sixteenth-century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari articulates in his multivolume Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects a notion now taken for granted: that drawing, better than any other technique, offers access to the artist’s thought processes. Indeed, we feel when looking at the marvelous sketches by Leonardo da Vinci that we gain a privileged glimpse into the mind of this intriguing genius. Vasari describes the way in which drawings were valuable and collectible demonstrations of the artist’s skill. While “Old Master” drawings have come down to us in abundance, the work of the draftsmen from previous eras remains difficult to find and largely unknown.

The work of medieval draftsmen, however, provides a distinctive contribution to the long history of the graphic arts. Drawings from the Middle Ages, many of them highly accomplished, do survive in greater numbers that one might suppose, but they look different from those revered by Vasari and are preserved in different places. To find them, we must generally look not at paper but parchment, less frequently at loose sheets and most often at pages bound within manuscripts. The study of medieval drawings requires that we both expand and rethink our notion of what a drawing is and how it might be used.

Drawing and the Artistic Process
Just as in the Renaissance and after, drawings in the Middle Ages were integral to the artistic process and served as a step toward finished works. Many illuminated manuscripts for instance, remain unfinished (2010.119). These works may have disappointed their original patrons, but provide a glimpse of the role drawing played in the development of their decoration. A cutting from an unfinished choirbook from the early fifteenth century provides a late example of this phenomenon (1999.391). The exquisitely executed underdrawing of the letter “D” by the Florentine painter Lorenzo Monaco gives a sense of the different techniques used in the preparation of an initial. The crisp outlines of the ornamental foliage that forms the shape of the letter contrasts with the soft modeling of the scene within, achieved through the expert application of a wash. Thick pigment would have obscured this drawing, had it been completed, but other studies such as the Bohemian Head of a Bearded Man (2003.29), rendered on paper, were likely never intended to receive a coat of paint. Rather, this drawing may have a served as a preparatory design for another work on another surface, perhaps a panel painting. The sketch etched on the back of an enamel plaque (17.190.811) or the drawing of a Gothic portal and porch (68.49) make clear that medieval artists working in other media besides paint also looked to drawing to work out their ideas.

Drawing and Scientific Illustration
In the Middle Ages, as in later periods, drawings were used to illustrate scientific and scholarly works. The conventions of representation and systems of thought familiar to medieval audiences often confound the modern viewer; careful study of medieval diagrams underscores the concern of medieval thinkers for both clarity and elegance in explaining complex ideas. A thirteenth-century roll with a text written by a professor at the University of Paris seeks to clarify no less than the history of the world from the beginning of time to the birth of Christ (2002.433). It uses a system of lines and framed circles, sometimes embellished with figural drawings, to present time as orderly series of ages and to show synchronous events in multiple places. The Thorney Computus, now at the library of St. John’s College, Oxford (MS 17), is a twelfth-century album of treatises and diagrams largely related to the medieval science of reckoning time. Its impressive dimensions, near flawless white parchment, and extraordinary series of drawn illustrations—more than 100 colored diagrams—convey the high esteem in which the monks at Thorney Abbey in England, where the work was made, held the book’s learned content.

Finished Drawings
It is perhaps in the realm of finished drawings where the skills of the medieval draftsman find their finest and most distinctive expression. These drawings serve as illustrations to an array of manuscripts, enhancing the text they accompany. Perhaps the most famous example is the Utrecht Psalter (University Library, Utrecht, MS 32), a book of Psalms produced in the 840s in northern France. Its 166 monochrome ink drawings are endowed with a palpable dynamism, created by a restless line that seems to vibrate with excitement. Its notable style enhanced its program of literal illustration, whereby almost every verse occasioned some form of pictorial representation, and each verse-image finds its place within an all-encompassing mountainous setting. Almost immediately upon completion, the Utrecht Psalter inspired a wide range of drawn manuscripts executed in the energetic, sketchy style it perfects. Book artists in Anglo-Saxon England were particularly taken with the Utrecht aesthetic, and it may have encouraged English artists to incorporate drawings in luxury books, where they sometimes appeared alongside costly materials such as paint and gold.

Particularly in the later Middle Ages, we come to know certain draftsmen by name. Matthew Paris, monk and designated historian at Saint Albans Abbey, not far from London, during the first half of the thirteenth century, was one of the most prolific. Some dozen manuscripts, of which he was the composer, scribe, and illustrator, have survived. In his most ambitious work, the Chronica Majora or Great Chronicle (Corpus Christi Library, Cambridge, MS 26, 16, and British Library, MS Royal 14 C.VII), he attempted a universal history that began with Creation and continued to his own day. Drawings appear within the margins, serving as place-markers, commentary, and linking devices. Bound within the volumes of the Chronicle as well as in other works by Matthew are independent drawings created apart from the written work. Many of these drawings document things he saw and highlight how even in the medieval period, drawings testified to first-hand observation.

The illustrations in the hand-sized prayer book created for Jeanne d’Evreux (54.1.2) in the early fourteenth century pay homage to the graphic aesthetic. The figures are rendered in subtle shades of gray and brown, a technique known as grisaille. They suggest luxury both by emulating costly materials such as ivory and alabaster sculpture and by bringing attention to the remarkable skills of the artist able to create such illusions. Jean Pucelle was the artist, and documentary evidence tells us that even in the Middle Ages, a book’s black-and-white illuminations were its distinguishing feature, just one indication of many that medieval artists, patrons, and viewers appreciated the unique traits and aesthetic possibilities of the drawn image.