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Lessons in the Art of Illuminating:A Series of Examples Selected from Works in the British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library and the South Kensington Museum

A Series of Examples Selected from Works in the British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library and the South Kensington Museum

Library of Alexandria
GENERAL SKETCH. PERHAPS the art of Illumination, although it is closely connected with that of Writing, may be entitled to a separate history. Men could write long before it occurred to them to ornament their writings: and the modern student will find that what he looks upon as genuine illumination is not to be traced back many centuries. True, one or two Roman manuscripts are in existence which may be dated soon after a.d. 200, and which are illustrated rather than illuminated with pictures. But the medieval art, and especially that branch of it which flourished in our own country, has a different origin, and sprang from the system, not of illustration, but of pure ornamentation, which prevailed in Ireland before the eighth century, but which reached its highest development among the Oriental Moslems. The works of the Irish school were for long and are sometimes still called Anglo-Saxon, and there can be no doubt that the Irish missionaries brought with them to Iona and to Lindisfarne the traditions and practice of the art, which they taught, with Christianity, to the heathens of England. I will therefore refer the reader who desires to know more of palæography in general, and of the principal foreign schools of the art of writing, to the great works of M. Sylvestre, of Messieurs Wyatt and Tymms, of Henry Shaw, and Miss Stokes, and to various isolated papers in the Transactions of the Antiquarian Societies; and I will begin with the earliest practice of the art in our own country and by our own ancestors. During the eighth century rivalry to Irish art sprung up in the south; and the immediate followers of St. Augustine of Canterbury founded a scriptorium which produced many fine specimens. In less than two centuries a very high standard had been reached, and many of my readers will remember the Utrecht Psalter, as it is called, which, though it is one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon MSS. now preserved, is full of spirited drawings of figures and of illuminated capital letters. The volume formerly belonged to England, but was lost, and subsequently turned up in Holland. By the tenth century the art had reached such a pitch of perfection that we find a charter of King Edgar wholly written in letters of gold. The Duke of Devonshire possesses a volume written and illuminated for Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984, by a scriptor named Godemann, afterwards Abbot of Thorney, the first English artist with whose name we are acquainted, if we except his more famous contemporary, Archbishop Dunstan, whose skill in metal work is better remembered than his powers as an illuminator. The wonderful Irish MSS. the Book of Kells, which is in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the Book of Durham, and others more curious than beautiful, belong to a slightly earlier period, perhaps to the ninth century, as Miss Stokes has suggested. Many schools of writing throughout England were destroyed in the Danish wars, and the princes of the Norman race did little to encourage literary art. Though one or two interesting MSS. of this period survive, it is not until the accession of the Angevins that English writing makes another distinct advance. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the art had risen to the highest pitch it has ever reached. The scriptorium of St. Albans was the most celebrated. The works of Matthew Paris written there are still extant, and testify, by the character of the pictures and colored letters, to a purity of style and to the existence of a living and growing art which has never been surpassed in this country. It is believed that the numerous little Bibles of this period were chiefly written at Canterbury, and certainly, as examples of what could be done before printing, are most marvellous. One of these MSS. is before me as I write. The written part of the page measures 2-5/8 inches in width and 3-3/4 inches in height, and the book is scarcely more than an inch thick, yet it contains, on pages of fine vellum in a minute almost microscopic hand, the whole Bible and Apocrypha. The beginning of each book has a miniature representing a Scripture scene, and a larger miniature, representing the genealogy of the Saviour, is at the beginning of Genesis. Although this is the smallest complete Bible I have met with, others very little larger are in the British Museum, and with them one, of folio size, exquisitely ornamented in the same style, which bears the name of the artist, Wills. Devoniensis, William of Devonshire. Besides Chronicles and Bibles the thirteenth century produced Psalters, the form and character of which were eventually enlarged and grew into the well-known Horæ, or books of devotional Hours, which were illuminated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Placing side by side a number of Psalters and Hours, and tracing by comparison the prevalence of single sets of designs—all, however, originating in the wonderful vitality of the thirteenth century—is a very interesting study, though seldom possible. It was possible to make such a comparison, however, in 1874, when a large number of magnificently illuminated books were exhibited together at the rooms of the Burlington Club in London. It was then seen that when the form and subject of a decoration were once invented they remained fixed for all generations. A Psalter of the thirteenth century, probably of Flemish execution, which was in the collection of Mr. Bragge, was ornamented with borders containing grotesque figures, and had a calendar at the beginning, every page of which represented a scene appropriate to the month, with the proper sign of the zodiac. Thus, under January there was a great hooded fire-place, and a little figure of a man seated and warming himself. The chimney formed a kind of border to the page, and at the top was a stork on her nest feeding her brood. This MS. was so early that some good judges did not hesitate to assign it to the end of the twelfth century. Close to it was a Book of Hours, written in the fifteenth if not early in the sixteenth century, and under January we have the self-same scene, though the grotesqueness, and indeed much of the quaint beauty of the design has disappeared. It is the same with scriptural and ritual scenes. The Bibles always had the same set of pictures; the Psalter and Hours the same subjects; and the same arrangement of colors was handed down as suitable for the representation of certain scenes, and was unvaried