The exhibition ‘Illuminating the Renaissance’ celebrates the flowering of Flemish manuscript illumination between c.1470 and 1560, a century in which illuminators achieved remarkable mastery of color, light, texture, space, and emotional impact, just before hand-made books lost out to printed volumes. The show is a considerable achievement. Thomas Kren, the curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum, and Scott McKendrick, his counterpart at the British Library, secured loans of major manuscripts from this period, bringing together more than 130 objects from around the world. The exhibited works, comprising devotional and secular books, are of the highest quality. The show’s major themes are the relationship between manuscript illuminators and painters, the role of court patronage, the emergence of personal libraries, and the international demand for Flemish illumination.
A comprehensive, richly illustrated, and excellently produced catalogue brings up to date this crucial field of art history and moves it forward. Conceived as a successor to Delaissé’s 1959 volume accompanying the exhibition La Miniature flamande: Le Mécénat de Philip le Bon, it is also organized roughly chronologically. Divided into five parts, it, and the exhibition, approach the material via individual illuminators. This review treats the catalogue and the exhibition in Los Angeles.
Part 1, ‘From Panel to Parchment and Back: Painters as Illuminators before 1470’ reviews developments in manuscript decoration during the reign of Philip the Good and stresses the permeable boundaries between illuminators and painters in that period. All artists showcased here appear to have worked in both media, even if only occasionally. The greatest treasure is the presentation miniature in the Chronique de Hainaut generally attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, an image of great power and refinement that echoes the magnificence and pomp of the Burgundian court. Also on view is a leaf from the Turin-MilanHours depicting an Eyckean Christ Blessing; Petrus Christus’s Head of Christ painted on parchment in oil in a miniaturist style and his Trinityillumination in the Hours of Paul van Overvelt; and a series of works by Simon Marmion: The Mass of St. Gregory and The Lamentation panels (the latter owned by Margaret of York), leaves from the Breviary of Charles the Bold, and several pages from Visions du Chevalier Tondal.
Part 2, ‘A Spirit of Naturalism,’ expanded in the catalogue as ‘Revolution and Transformation: Painting in Devotional Manuscripts, circa 1467-1485,’ examines the new style of Flemish illumination that emerged in the 1470s and transformed both miniatures and borders by applying the naturalistic effects of oil painting to book decoration. The Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy was a major figure in this development. His works convey richly textured details, subtle atmospheric effects, and profound emotion. He is represented in the show by such manuscripts as the Prayer Book of Charles the Bold and the Hours of Engelbert of Nassau on which he collaborated with Lieven van Lathem, Simon Marmion, and various assistants. Kren adds to his oeuvre several previously overlooked miniatures including ten images in the Quintus Curtius Rufus’s Livre des fais d’Alexandre le grant produced for Charles the Bold, and a miniature in the recently re-discovered Trivulsio Hours.
The most subtle and exquisite miniatures in this section are those by the Master of the Houghton Miniatures. To his oeuvre Kren adds the miniatures in the Huth Hours such as The Disputation of Saint Barbara set in a meticulously detailed Flemish cityscape; two leaves from a devotional book one of which shows David wearing a bright yellow robe arranged in a sweeping curve, kneeling in prayer in a meadow in front of a Flemish town on a river under the sky darkening just after sunset; and a sheet with 14 heads, drawn with pen and brush on paper, of men of different ages, facial types, and ethnicities posed in a variety of attitudes and moods. The work of the Master of theHoughton Miniatures closely resembles in style, tonality, compositions, and psychological complexity Hugo van der Goes’s paintings. Saint Anthony Abbot in the Wilderness in the Emerson-White Hours looks very Goesian in his lilac robe, absorbed in reading while seated on a rock in the foreground of a deep, atmospheric landscape.
The Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian is represented by the London Hours of William Lord Hastings, and an elegant frontispiece to the Légende de Saint Adrien showing Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy, guarded by angels, praying before the carved and polychromed altar of Saint Adrien; coral and pearl paternosters decorate the margins of the page. The talent of the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, who developed more elaborate and naturalistic borders around his illuminations, can be admired in the Hours of Jean Carpetin and the Crohin-La Fontaine Hours. Simon Marmion’s continued accomplishments are illustrated by the Last Judgmentminiature in the Hours of Charlotte of Bourbon-Montpelier: Christ surrounded by brown, yellow and red circles of cherubim and angels hovers above the ghostly men and women floating up toward him out of the darkness of hell. St. Jerome and a Donor, probably the left wing of a diptych or triptych, demonstrates Marmion’s activities as a painter.
Part 3, ‘Reviving the Past’ in the exhibition and ‘Painting in Manuscripts of Vernacular Texts, circa 1467-1485’ in the catalogue, focuses on secular books. In the days of Philip the Good, Flemish illuminators illustrated a great number of late medieval prose romances. After his death, chronicles and other historical texts became more popular and lavishly adorned. This shift echoed the growing interest of the French-speaking nobility in ancient and modern history. One of the most beautiful miniatures here depicts Alexander taking the hand of Roxanne painted by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy in Quintus Curtius Rufus’s Livre des fais d’Alexandre le grant. The scene echoes the splendor of the Burgundian court, and the 30 richly dressed virgins from whom Alexander selects his bride convey its high sartorial standards.
Loyset Liédet’s work is showcased by miniatures from Histoire de Charles Martel illuminated for Philip the Good and Charles the Bold. Lieven van Lathem decorated Louis of Gruuthuse’s copy of the Roman de Gillion de Trazegnies with richly detailed narratives framed by opulent three-sided floral borders. He also produced the extensive sequence of images illustrating the story of Jason in Raoul Lefévre’s Histoire de Jason. In one dramatic scene Medea kills Jason’s sons during a palace banquet. Flying atop three smoldering dragons, she throws the diners, servants, and musicians into a terrified scramble. The Master of Anthony of Burgundy’s vivid depiction of Bal des Ardensin Jean Froissart’s Chroniques is another tour de force in handling space, light, and emotional drama. The Master of the London Wavrin, named for the first time here after the miniatures he painted c.1475 in Edward IV’s copy of volume 1 of Jean de Wavrin’s Croniques d’Angleterre, was particularly gifted in creating extensive atmospheric landscapes in which he set his narratives. These views, shown from high horizon lines and ending in snow-capped mountains, produce a highly poetic effect. At the beginning of the Trojan Descent of Brutusthis master painted a precocious independent landscape – a beautiful vista without any narrative action.
Kren also highlights here the work of the Master of the Getty Froissart, who has received almost no scholarly attention. In the Getty’s copy of book 3 of Jean Froissart’s Chroniques, produced in Bruges c.1480, this artist painted subtly lit interiors, spacious landscapes, and lively figures in varied poses and costumes. In one miniature the soldiers of Brabant enter Ravenstein under the dark sky with clouds tinted by the beginning sunrise. Another magical miniature in this section is by the hand of the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian: in La Chronique des haulx et nobles princes de Cleves the Knight of the Swan arrives in a boat drawn by the white bird at the castle of Beatrice who gazes upon him from a window, her golden dress contrasting with the gray stonework of her home. The subtle details and coolly elegant color-scheme of this refined miniature are heightened by the vigorous gold acanthus-leaf border enlivened by flowers and birds.
Part 4, ‘Illumination under the Hapsburgs,’ or ‘Consolidation and Renewal: Manuscript Painting under the Habsburgs, circa 1485-1510’ in the catalogue, highlights the emergence of the Master of James IV of Scotland and the influential role of Gerard David as an illuminator. Both artists painted miniatures in the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary, partly exhibited here. Starting around the turn of the century the Master of James IV of Scotland began to paint large miniatures on both leaves of an opening, reducing the role of the text and increasing the significance of pictorial elements. He doubled the length of pictorial cycles in the Hours of the Virgin and the Hours of the Passion, giving these narratives a more vivid aspect. Overall, there is a greater focus on devotional books in this period, and more than ever Flemish illuminated manuscripts were produced for export in response to keen international demand.
Among such books exhibited in the show is the Breviary of Isabella of Castille and the Hours of Isabella of Castille richly decorated by the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, Gerard David, the Master of James IV of Scotland, and others. Gerard David’s achievements are represented by his miniatures, devotional panels, and a drawing of female heads and hands. The Hours of James IV of Scotland, which gave the name to the master, show his talent at its best in the exceptionally accomplished full-page portrait of the Scottish king kneeling in prayer before the altarpiece with an image of Christ as Salvator Mundi. Simon Marmion, meanwhile, painted the much imitated half-length miniatures in the book of hours called La Flora. By cropping the scenes to dramatic close-ups he magnified their emotional power. The miniatures of the Master of the Lübeck Bible are filled with a sense of movement and excitement. In his Pentecost in theCarondelet Breviary figures with distinctive faces appear at odd angles and in exaggerated poses. Elsewhere he favors dramatic foreshortening and strangely telescoped perspective. These features make his work idiosyncratic and strangely compelling. The Master of the David Scenes in the Grimany Breviary, in his turn, produced the enchanting image of Joanna of Castille praying to the Virgin and Child on the adjacent page of the Hours of Joanna of Castille, and a similar composition showing a beautiful young patroness in a half-length view on the recto praying to a full-page dramatic close-up of the Lamentation on the verso of the Ince-Blundell Hours.
Perhaps the most arresting miniature in this section is by the Master of the Prayer Book of Around 1500 in the Holkham Virgil, one of the most elegant fifteenth-century manuscripts of a classical text produced in Northern Europe (made for Jan Crabbe, abbot of the Abbey of Ter Duinen near Bruges in 1473, it was enhanced two decades later by the next owner, a man of De Baenst family of Bruges, with the two full-page miniatures). The miniature opening the Georgics takes the viewer through the poems by presenting a succession of subjects from Books 1 through 4. In the foreground we see plowing and sowing; further back, the tending of trees and vines; still farther, the rearing of horses, cattle, sheep and goats; and in the background, bee-keeping, with bees almost the size of cats.
Part 5, ‘New Directions in Manuscript Painting, circa 1510-1561’ treats further evolution of landscape, more elaborate narrative cycles, the influence of Mannerism, and the emergence of portraiture as a genre. One outstanding manuscript here is the Spinola Hours, illuminated by the Master of James IV of Scotland with exceptional landscapes and borders that continue and develop the narratives of the central miniatures. In the Office of the Dead the central scene depicts the Mass for the deceased in a church interior, the right border shows the outside of the building, and the bottom border its crypt with a tomb. Gerard Horenbout, identified by many scholars with the Master of James IV of Scotland, was responsible for the luminous full-page miniatures in theMilanese Hours of Bona Sforza painted with great refinement, perfectly balanced compositions, and deep volumetric spaces. But the primary figure in this section is Simon Bening who took the depiction of atmospheric landscapes in books to new levels of depth, subtlety, and expressiveness. His outdoor vistas in the calendar pages are compared to Bruegel’s Landscape with a Magpie on the Gallows. A marvelous colorist, Bening, like Bruegel, keenly observed how the natural world changes throughout the year.
Bening illuminated the magnificent Brandenburg Prayer Book with a narrative of the life of Christ, often showing nocturnal scenes enacted under flickering light: the Denial of St. Peter takes place in the darkened interior courtyard illuminated only by the hearth at its center. With the help of his workshop, Bening painted the Stein Quadriptych – 64 miniatures presenting the lives of the Virgin and Christ in dramatic close-ups knit together into proto-cinematic sequences. In the calendar section of the Da Costa Hours he observed with great subtlety the activities of the months, conveying a precise sense of the seasons and weather conditions. In the leaves from the Hennessy Hours his calendar scenes are still more original and expressive: set in deeply receding and highly detailed landscapes, they show aristocratic men engaged in leisurely pursuits, rather than peasants carrying out labors. In February a group of riders in the countryside pauses at a stream to water their horses; in June a tournament unfolds in the city square. In other miniatures from this manuscript Bening plays with Mannerist elements, adapting figures from engravings after Michelangelo and Raphael. Bening also illuminated leaves for a monumental genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (after preparatory drawings by Antonio de Holanda) where each figure is individualized by its demeanor, costume, and distinct activity. A superb portraitist, Bening produced independent illuminated likenesses, such as those of Henry III, the Count of Nassau (the chamberlain of Charles V Habsburg) and his wife Mencia de Mendoza.
A new artist introduced in this section is the Master of Cardinal Wolsey, named after the patron of the impressive gospel-lectionary and epistle-lectionary previously attributed to the Horenbouts. This master combined the atmospheric landscapes and naturalistic figure modeling of Ghent and Bruges illuminations with Mannerist elements such as excessively dramatic gestures, agitated brushwork, and muscular putti in the borders.
These are only a few of the masterpieces assembled for the show at the Getty. At the Royal Academy many other works that did not travel to Los Angeles will be on view, and books that were present in America will be turned to different pages. Thus the London exhibition will complement and augment this splendid array.
The catalogue not only offers new attributions and detailed up-to-date discussions of masters and all the miniatures exhibited in both Los Angeles and London, but includes three interpretative essays. Catherine Reynolds in her ‘Illuminators and the Painters’ Guilds’ demonstrates that the fifteenth-century Netherlands had no guilds overseeing the book trade, and with the exception of Bruges, only in the second half of the fifteenth century did painters attempt to bring illuminators under their control. Their concern was the trade in single-leaf miniatures that evolved as part of a mechanism for efficiently supplying the huge markets at home and abroad with standard devotional texts, particularly Books of Hours. Instead of painting larger miniatures directly in manuscripts, artists prefabricated miniatures on separate pages that could be inserted into books. These single-leaf illuminations encroached on the territory of painters. Illuminators remained largely outside guild control until the second half of the fifteenth century, Reynolds suggests, because in the Netherlands levels of literacy were exceptionally high, and the techniques and materials of writing were too widespread to be easily regulated. Nor were writing, and its attendant illumination, entirely separate from creative scholarship or literary activity. Besides, religious houses – then still major centers of scholarship and commercial book production – were exempt from guild supervision. Finally, Reynolds notes, illumination was a more easily learned technique than oil painting. In Bruges and Tournai it took two years to become an illuminator and four a painter. Painters would inevitably acquire the skills for illuminating and could engage in both activities, whereas illuminators could not with their more limited expertise.
In ‘Illuminators and Painters: Artistic Exchanges and Interrelationships’ Thomas Kren and Maryan W. Ainsworth explore how illuminators provided sources and points of departure for painters, rather than only the other way around as is most commonly assumed. They suggest that Bosch drew inspiration from Simon Marmion; that Gerard David borrowed compositions and motifs from the leading illuminators; that Lieven von Latham’s atmospheric landscapes were the forbearers of Joachim Patinir’s paintings; and that Bruegel was inspired by the iconography of Bening’s calendar pages. Kren and Ainsworth emphasize the reciprocity of exchanges between the two arts and their practitioners, especially given that families of artists were often linked though marriage and social networks and worked in a range of interrelated media.
Scott McKendrick in ‘Reviving the Past: Illustrated Manuscripts of Secular Vernacular Texts, 1467-1500′ discusses the production and consumption of such books in the Netherlands and France, and contrasts their lavish embellishment with the decorative sobriety of Italian manuscripts of classical texts. McKendrick suggests that secular vernacular texts were so popular in the Burgundian court milieu because in addition to expressing the prestige and cultivation of their owners, such volumes played a crucial role in patterns of friendship and social patronage. Often elaborately personalized through the addition of the arms, devices, and mottoes, these books also served as markers in the lives of elites. McKendrick addresses the role of historical texts in instructing nobility in political skills and examples of virtuous actions that led to honor. Northern European nobles, contrary to Italians, he argues, sought to understand the present and their place in it by reference to the past couched in contemporary idiom. Hence Flemish miniatures in secular vernacular tomes made no attempt at all’ antica reconstruction, and consumers showed no signs of wanting such an approach. By casting their past in present guise, readers identified with it more immediately. McKendrick cautions against using miniatures in vernacular texts as ‘snapshots’ of the era, however: they are often mined as sources for period costume, warfare, and daily life, and their true significance gets distorted. He notes that naturalistic details are often intended as idealizations. By focusing on images we lose sight of the specific and programmatic texts which they glossed. It would have been useful had McKendrick dwelled more on the different types of secular texts: chronicles vs. romances, classical histories vs. morality manuals.
The catalogue ends with an appendix of scribe bibliographies, bibliographies to the catalogue entries, a list of cited publications that runs to 29 triple-columned pages, and indexes of names and works of art. A major scholarly achievement, the volume will certainly become a primary tool in the field of Flemish manuscripts, and a lasting record of a fundamental exhibition.
Santa Monica, CA