History, Theory, and Practice of Illuminating

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History, Theory, and Practice of Illuminating  (1861) 
by M. Digby Wyatt
Title Page



Plate I.—From the fragments of the Bible of Charles the Bald, preserved in the British Museum, Harleian 7551. In most of the MSS. of the date of Charlemagne and his immediate successors, the ornamental forms are generally compounded of Anglo-Saxon and semi-classical details; thus, fig. 1 presents us with a lunette, or arch-filling, borrowed from some Latin type; while in figs. 3, 4, 5, the interlaced knots, and in figs. 2 and 6 the "zoomorphic" terminations, are equally characteristic of Celtic art. This class of conventional design, although apparently complicated, is of comparatively easy execution, and on that account forms a suitable style for the young illuminator to try his "'prentice hand" upon.

Plate II. gives the outline of the preceding plate, and the beginner may make his first attempt at practical illumination in an endeavour to make it resemble Plate I. as closely as possible.

Plate III., from the same source as Plate I., gives, in figs. 1 and 4, two alphabets, and in fig. 2 one sentence, in the characters in which the Latin text of the original is written throughout the volume, with the usual form of initial letter; together with, in fig. 3, an ornament showing, on a largish scale, the principle upon which the most common interlacement of the Saxon school is usually worked out.

It may be here noted that, considering it as likely to be more useful to the student, throughout these illuminations the characters, which in the originals express Latin, French, or barbarous English, have been arranged to exhibit Scripture texts of simple language, such as may be frequently desired for the embellishment of churches or schoolrooms.

Plate IV., from the British Museum, Reg. 1, c. vii. This manuscript consists of the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, in the Vulgate version, with St. Jerome's prologues. It is probably of German execution, and is attributed by Sir Frederick Madden to the middle of the 12th century. In its illustrations may be recognised a series of good specimens of Romanesque forms. In these the scroll may be observed as having almost entirely superseded the Carlovingian interlacement, while in the foliated ends of the leading stems (more particularly in fig. 1) the germination of Gothic is distinctly perceptible. The student will scarcely fail to observe how entirely dependent this style of illumination is upon the steadiness with which the pen is handled for all its charm of expression.

Plate V. gives the outline of the preceding plate, to be coloured as a lesson in shading with the brush.

Plate VI. provides an alphabet of capital letters, some initials, and a complete sentence, taken from the same MS. which has furnished materials for the two preceding plates.

Plate VII. contains fully-coloured examples from the British Museum, Reg. 1 D, fully described at pages 47 and 48. In these we meet with the plenitude of English mediæval illumination,—its freedom of drawing, its vigour of colour, its exquisite delicacy, and the general facility of design its wayward lines attest. In the best work there is a playfulness not to be often found in the productions of the contemporary European schools. It needs but little ingenuity to expand such features as those which constitute figs. 1, 3, 6, 7, 8, from small book embellishments to large motives of elegant mural decoration.

Plate VIII. is the corresponding outline to Plate VII.

Plate IX. supplies the student with models taken from the same MS. (Reg. 1 D), of capital and initial letters, and ordinary text, suitable for combination with the rich ornaments of Plate VII.

In this, as in all corresponding plates, the object aimed at is to provide forms of lettering, at once tolerably legible, well-proportioned, and adapted to harmonize, both historically and artistically, with the styles of pictorial illumination given in connection with them. There are few faults more common in modern work, or more offensive to the educated eye, than the association of styles of lettering and styles of ornamentation warring with each other in the proprieties of both time and form. Against such it is our earnest object to guard the student, both by precept and example.

Plate X. furnishes some specimens of the beautiful borderings which enrich the pages of that most precious relic of the 15th century, the "Bedford Missal," or, more properly speaking, "Book of Hours." This exquisite volume has been so fully dwelt upon at pages 55 and 56, that it is necessary only to refer the reader to the notice given thereat.

In the examples collected on this plate, it is manifest that the pictorial has not been allowed to usurp the proper province of the conventional element of design, as it too frequently does in many works of the same period, particularly in Italy,—undoubtedly beautiful as much of the illumination of the 15th century was in that country.

Plate XI. provides an outline of Plate X., for fully colouring in facsimile.

Plate XII. shows the general style of the lettering, both capital and lower-case, the initials, and the borders which pervade this beautiful triumph of Flemish art. Of these, figs. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 are especially adapted for mural decoration, on, of course, a greatly enlarged scale.

M. D. W.

37, Tavistock Place, London.
April, 1861.



Plate I. is from the Speyer Passavant Charlemagne Bible, British Museum add. 10,546, described at page 39 of the "Historical Manual." The student cannot fail to observe how distinctly legible, and indeed how entirely Roman in character, the alphabet of capitals remained so long after the Augustan period as the ninth century after Christ. In the lower-case letters, in which the text is written, the legibility is evident; but the classical derivation through the uncial form of writing is not equally manifest. Desiring to guide the beginner in the class of exercises most likely to lead him on satisfactorily, we have in this technical manual in every case allowed the outline illustrations of each style of writing to precede the fully-coloured specimens of the corresponding ornament of the leading epochs of the art of illumination; enforcing thereby our conviction that the study and practice of that, which of old fell more directly within the province of the scribe than within that of the miniature painter, should invariably receive the student's first and chief attention—for, let it always be remembered that good writing looks well if enhanced by little, or the very simplest, ornament, while in illumination the effect of the best possible painting is irretrievably marred if the writing is irregular and badly formed or spaced.

Plate II., from the same precious volume, provides some simple but excellent conventional forms, suitable for execution both on a small and on an enlarged scale. By repeating either one of the three borders at the bottom of the plate, very pretty margins may be produced, suitable either for surrounding a page of writing or for enclosing a panel in mural decoration.

Plate III. is an outline for practising colouring upon. In using these outlines, it may be a profitable exercise occasionally to vary the colours from those given on the corresponding plate. A comparison of the effect produced by the original, and by its copy with variations, will tend to fix on the memory of the artist the exact degree of merit of the original and of the altered combinations of colour. The practical value of an educated eye, no less than of an educated mind, is dependent on the force and intelligence of the memory, and every exercise which can assist in fixing a fleeting image on the brain is no less efficacious in strengthening the one than it can be in developing the other.

Plate IV., from the Harleian MS. No. 2,804, gives one of our usual exercises upon the main structural features of all illumination—the alphabets, initial letters, and small borderings. These, in this case in the Romanesque style, have been taken from a very remarkable Bible formerly belonging to the church of St. Mary, near Worms. For further notice of this and similar volumes, see "Historical Manual," page 43. The main use to the student of this class of lesson is to give him steadiness of hand in the use of the pen; a word or two of counsel upon which may not be altogether unprofitable to him. Firstly, then, let him avoid the habit of allowing the pen to touch the paper before he has clearly made up his mind where it is to go and when it is to be taken off. An ill-directed line instantly reveals a listless mind, and a careful master can generally detect the exact points in his work at which the attention of a usually diligent pupil has been abstracted from it. Secondly, he should never express by half a dozen or more separate strokes forms which may be defined by a single continuous line. Thirdly, let him practise moving the pen or pencil, not up and down only, but in every direction, until equal facility is acquired in drawing spirals from left to right and from right to left. Fourthly, it is well to hold the pen or pencil nearly vertical, just touching, but scarcely ever pressing heavily on, the surface of the drawing. Fifthly, he should by no means aim at dash or spirit until he is quite sure that his lines are correct: nothing betrays the ill-educated artist more surely and readily to those who know better than a bold stroke where a delicate one would be more appropriate, or a dark touch in the wrong place. It is the ignorant only who are misled by an appearance of bravura, vigour, and facility.

Plate V., fully coloured from the same source as Plate IV., offers in figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8, some easy borders, well adapted for enriching string courses or filling in long upright panels or pilasters. The initial letters (figs. 1 and 6) are designed with great spirit, and the student may profitably amuse himself by endeavouring to invent other capital letters made up as these are of apocryphal animals writhing in convoluted scrollwork.

Plate VI. gives the outline for colouring in fac simile of Plate V.

Plate VII., from a Latin Bible of fine English illumination early in the fourteenth century (British Museum, Reg. 15, D. 2), corresponds in the general character of both its technical and chronological peculiarities with those shown on Plates VII., VIII., and IX., of the "Historical Manual." The two MSS., however, from which the two series of plates have been taken, differ in some material respects, and it will be well for the student to practise the leading characteristics of each. One is of extraordinary delicacy, the other of great vigour of execution. The latter stamps the MS. from which the plate under consideration is taken. The student is invited to observe the grace and freedom with which the floral terminations of the principal initial (fig. 2) dash away, extending to both the top and bottom of the page, and not unfrequently in similar examples embracing, as it were, the text on two or more sides. (See "Historical Manual," page 47.) Great attention must now be bestowed upon the writing; so that neither the true Mediæval character may be destroyed, nor so exaggerated as to lose clearness and legibility: a little care and dexterity may preserve both.

Plate VIII. is intended to draw out all the capabilities of the illuminator. Raised, burnished, and engraved, or indented gold, are essential to a proper realization of a revival of such old work; and the student who would rival in his productions the sober richness of the brushes of the artist monks of the fourteenth century, must carefully study the combinations of colour given in the "Mappæ Clavicula." Figs. 2, 5, and 6, offer examples of the tesselated burnished diaper grounds, and fillings in, which superseded to a great extent the flat burnished golden grounds of earlier dates. Such diapers are little less well adapted for walls or ceilings than they are for book decoration. It can be scarcely necessary to dwell upon what must be perfectly obvious, the great beauty of the initial letters (figs. 1, 3, and 4) given on this sheet.

Plate IX. is a careful outline of the above.

Plate X., from the Missal of Ferdinand and Isabella (British Museum, Add. 1851), described at page 57 of the "Historical Manual," introduces us to the pictorial, or rather miniature style,—one, which can only be excelled in by those who are prepared to devote themselves to painting as no longer a decorative, but as essentially a "fine art." Far am I from saying that the highest possible art was not brought to bear upon much Mediæval illumination; all that I would convey is, that care and neatness may produce very respectable reproductions of ordinary ornamental work, such as was commonly used during the fourteenth, and early in the fifteenth centuries; but that they alone will be found quite inadequate to imitate successfully the highly modelled and fully shadowed foliage, landscape, architectural groups, and figure subjects, which incessantly recur in books illuminated at periods corresponding with the great Renaissance of art under the Van Eycks and Memlings of Flanders, the Durers of Germany, and the Peruginos, Pinturicchios, and Raffaelles, of Italy.

Plate XI., fully coloured from the same source as Plate X., can only be satisfactorily copied by the student, who may have learnt to shadow with the brush from either objects "in the round," or from really good copies, either by very great personal devotion and perseverance, or under an experienced master.

Plate XII. gives a careful outline of the preceding plate.

M. D. W.

37, Tavistock Place, London.
April, 1861.