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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Manuscript Illumination in Northern Europe

Unlike the mass-produced books of our time, an illuminated manuscript is a unique, handmade object. In its structure, layout, script, and decoration, every manuscript bears the signs of the unique set of processes and circumstances involved in its production, as it moved successively through the hands of the parchment maker, the scribe, and one or more decorators or illuminators.

Early manuscripts were made in monasteries, but by the twelfth century an urban bookseller, called a libraire, coordinated the various stages of production. The city of Paris was renowned as a major center of illumination in the early fifteenth century, yet by the 1440s its status was rivaled by vigorous book production in the great urban centers of the Burgundian Netherlands such as Bruges, Ghent, and Valenciennes.

Among the most famous illuminators in the history of the medium are the Limbourg brothers, Herman, Paul, and Jean, who were employed by the extravagant collector Jean, duke of Berry, a prince of the royal French house of Valois. Their work exemplifies the courtly style prevalent in various European centers around 1400, which combined elegant, sinuous figures, decorative color, and selective realism in pictorial details such as animals, insects, or plants. These traits are shown in the scenes of the Crucifixion and Annunciation from their Belles Heures (54.1.1) of around 1406–8/9. As the principal miniature of the manuscript, the Annunciation displays a luxurious border of Italianate acanthus leaf.

A second important phase in book production was stimulated by the patronage of the Valois duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, who inherited the passion of his house for expensive illuminated books. From the 1440s onward, he built up a significant library totaling nearly a thousand titles by his death. It included many secular histories and romances, subjects that broadened the pictorial repertoire of illuminators in the fifteenth century. The illuminated frontispiece of the duke’s Chroniques de Hainaut, a secular chronicle, depicts the ceremonial presentation of the book to the duke by its scribe and translator, thereby commemorating not only the duke’s literacy and wisdom, but also his political role as legitimate successor to the counts of Hainaut.

Throughout the fifteenth century, lavishly illuminated manuscripts were highly prized items, and important books were frequently given as diplomatic gifts, or to celebrate dynastic marriages. Oil paintings, so highly esteemed in our day, achieved a status similar to manuscripts only in the later fifteenth century. A number of artists, such as Simon Marmion, active in Valenciennes, or Jean Fouquet (ca. 1425–1478), who was employed at the French court, worked both in books and on panel. This required a different approach, for illuminators worked in egg tempera on parchment, in contrast to the oil medium used by panel painters. Nonetheless, Marmion’s miniature of the Holy Virgins Greeted by Christ as They Enter the Gates of Paradise (1975.1.2477) displays a refined, muted color scheme of whites and pastel shades that is comparable to the pale tonalities in his oil painting The Lamentation (1975.1.128). Fouquet’s miniature The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against Demons (1452–60), which contains an accurate view of contemporary Paris, demonstrates his extraordinary ability to infuse miniature paintings with a striking sense of breadth, detail, and geometrical structure (Hours of Étienne Chevalier, 1975.1.2490).

Despite the escalating popularity of printed books in the sixteenth century, many of Europe’s rulers and aristocrats continued to commission books of hours for private devotion. In an Adoration of the Magi (48.149.15) of about 1520, the powerful illusion of spatial depth and vivid re-creation of the long journey of the magi were intended to sustain continued viewing and private meditation.

In his self-portrait of 1558, the most famous illuminator of his day, Simon Bening (Book of Hours2015.706), visualized his claim to social status above the rank of artisan through his self-confident signature and relatively refined costume (Self-Portrait, 1975.1.2487). As a self-contained miniature painting, the image marks a point of transition between illumination in books, which was to die out over the coming century, and the emerging genre of the portrait miniature.