Re-Making the Margin, based on the author’s 2002 dissertation,discusses a new style of decorating books that became prominent around 1500. As-Vijvers identifies the Master of the David Scenes as the inventor of this new decorating system and she convincingly locates his activities in Bruges. As the title suggests, As-Vijvers offers a monograph of the master and a contextualization of his work. Nonetheless, the book accomplishes much more, providing an overview of the origins and development of the so-called “isolated motifs,” with special attention given to the illuminators who occupied themselves with this kind of border decoration. Although the David Master played an important role in the invention and cultivation of this decorative program, other illuminators are prominently represented. Individual chapters are devoted to Simon Bening, to Cornelia van Wulfschkercke and the Carmelite convent of Sion in Bruges. In fact, As-Vijvers only arrives at the David Master by Chapter 5.
In the introduction, the author promises to “provide insight into the organisation of late-medieval Flemish manuscript production, the division of labor among illuminators and the use of models” (87), providing a careful study of marginal motifs on text pages, thereby effectively clarifying complex matters. By focusing on the margins of these richly illuminated books, she circumvents the problem of inserted miniatures, which are not always produced by the same illuminators as the rest of the manuscript.
The margins reveal how illuminators came into contact with one another and how models were distributed. Furthermore, the motifs help to demonstrate the working methods of illuminators, leading the author to conclude that “the quires were treated as individual entities, the constituent bifolia being the illuminators’ working unit” (184). Finally, isolated motifs add to the current knowledge of models. As-Vijvers provocatively deduces that motifs occurring on the same bifolium of a manuscript – the working unit – may well have come from the same source or sheet. This offers a possibility of construing models. Moreover, she also comes to the conclusion that colored-in models, perhaps a finished or partially finished book, were more common than generally assumed.
As-Vijvers provides a comprehensive and meticulous study of manuscripts. With an eye for detail, she describes the books and unravels the production processes leading to the final products. Every argument is carefully constructed and underlined by at least three different examples. Although her arguments are persuasive, the sheer density of information presented occasionally makes the book hard to read. The complex organization of the book further challenges comprehension. The text is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the isolated-motif manuscripts, forming the core of the book. The other addresses types of freestanding motifs. Although it is called Part II, it seems to function as an addendum with descriptions of the manuscripts that could not be fitted into the main corpus of isolated-motif manuscripts from the workshop of the David Master. Unfortunately, there is no index of illuminators or geographical sites, only of the objects, i.e. manuscripts. All this makes the book more difficult to navigate.
The author’s discussion of pilgrims’ badges is somewhat problematic. She states that”‘the backs of badges usually had a pin for fastenin”’ and that”‘the badges pictured are all of the plaquette type.” The word “plaquette” however is generally reserved for the thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century pewter pilgrims’ souvenirs. After that date, open-work badges (gittergusse) almost completely replaced the earlier plaquette-type badges. Both the plaquettes and the open-work badges were cast and had a flat reverse. The badges, depicted in manuscripts, were stamped. This method of producing badges was introduced in the second half of the fifteenth century when open-work badges were still being cast. With stamped badges, the picture was not cast but hammered into a thin piece of metal producing a relief image. The form that protruded on the front was hollow at the back, and vice versa. These fragile badges could not have pins on the back. Instead, they usually had three or four holes along the edge for fastening. These kinds of badges were frequently sewn into religious books, which probably explains why illuminators liked to include them in their marginal repertoire. For instance, punched holes for fastening are depicted in the Hours of Joanna of Castile, including the threads with which the badges are sewn onto the page. Religious badges thus effectively connected the religious texts and miniatures of the book with well-known devotional practices.
As-Vijvers’s attempts at explaining workshop processes by reconstruction are especially striking, as for example in her description of the “invention” of the decorative system of isolated motifs and her discussion of the division of work in the Brukenthal Hours (247). As far as the illuminator’s choice of motifs is concerned, she firmly believes in the dominance of the model sheet. She convincingly argues that illuminators picked from the models at hand when they were decorating a quire and that the finished borders on colored grounds influenced the choice of isolated motifs in the same quire. Illuminators did not let the contents of the page influence their choice of motifs. Without discarding this working method, which follows from As-Vijvers’s careful study of the manuscripts, it is necessary to add that the motifs were not entirely without meaning. Significantly, some marginal motifs only appear in religious books suggesting there was a hierarchy: some motifs were suitable for any context – with flowers and insects as the most obvious examples. Yet others, such as the pilgrim badges, were earmarked for particular manuscripts. This last category of motifs commented on the book and its function.
Re-Making the Margin presents a thorough study of illumination in Bruges around 1500. It is a rich publication, both in plate material and in text. It provides interesting new insights into the technical aspects of illumination, such as the structure of workshops, production processes, model sheets and networks of illuminators. Re-Making the Margin is an indispensable resource for anyone with a professional interest in workshop practices, late-medieval illumination and painting around 1500.
Hanneke van Asperen
Radboud University, Nijmegen