Photo 1. Buxheim St. Christopher
Photo 2. Giovannino dei Grassi, Hours of Giangaleazzo Visconti
ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS AND EARLY PRINTING
Christianity engulfed classical culture from the fourth century onwards. The development where the scroll from the old Roman law evolved into the velum codex, coincides with the beginning of what we know as Middle Ages. During this time, books were made primarily for the aristocracy. After becoming popular, they were called Illuminated manuscripts. The close of the medieval period is indicated by the invention of printing which it had an enormous impact. By about 1510 most European books were being made by printing. Many scribers welcomed this new method and some of them became printers with greater competency and profit.
The term Illumination means “with decoration” that sparkles when they catch the light. De Hamel, however, affirms that “the firsts medieval manuscripts had almost no decoration and even many richly decorated manuscripts do not include gold” (10). With the rise of the middle class by the fifteenth century, there was now a market for simple vernacular stories. As a result, books had to be produced.
The most popular text of all was the Book of Hours, a standard series of prayers and psalms intended for recitation at eight canonical ‘hours’ of the day. They were made for ordinary people. The need for abnormal numbers of copy led to many new methods of mass-producing. Furthermore, the book was intended for use at home rather than in a church. No one knows how many Books of Hours still exist, as they are scattered around the world more than any other object made in the Middle Ages.
There are other reasons why people needed books. One was the fear of a sudden death that was really a concern in the Middle Ages, as plague and warfare were always imminent. The Office of the Dead, inside the Book of Hours, shows this obsessive fascination with death. It comprises further psalms and readings primarily intended “to be said around the bier of a dead person, but also recited daily as a reminder of one’s mortality and, as some thought, as a protection against dying suddenly and unprepared” (C. de Hamel).
The other one reason was certainly the individualism of religion. The Book of Hours was not an official Church service book of any kind but a compendium largely made by secular book-sellers for use at home by the laity. Their makers added in the books what it was required by the customer rather than some Church authority. It was extremely popular, and families who had never owned a book, went out to purchase a Book of Hours.
Books were also made for ideological and political propaganda purposes. Giangaleazzo Visconti, who commissioned the Book of Hours, was the most ambitious and probably the cleverest member of a powerful family. The Visconti ruled Milan for more than a century. He became the sole ruler of the County of Milan in 1385. In addition, he launched a campaign of territorial expansion that brought all Lombardy and Emilia under his rule and carried his power to the gates of Florence. Alexander says that “his concern for the acceptance of his authority led him to display his heraldic devices and mottoes on all occasions” (143). The armorials often radiate light as dazzling as the symbols of God and the saints.
At the illumination made by dei Grassi, Giangaleazzo’s portrait appears in the middle of this Psalm. This is the most dignifying representation of him. His profile displays the sloping brow, full lips, receding hairline and double-pointed beard. Furthermore, it is given an additional prominence by the ring of clouds and the sunburst which frames it. Hunting dogs and their chases are at either side of the Count. Trees emerge from precipitous hills and their foliage are more decorative than naturalistic. The artist also includes “their roots as those of the vines which grow around them. Trumpet-shaped blossoms on the winding tendrils complement the flowers on the hills and meadow bellow” (Meiss and Kirsch 115). Dei Grassi is acclaimed to appreciate nature and for filling the pages with wonderfully accurate details. This style is known as International style and it is essentially an art destined to the aristocrat.
How the books were made is also a question to consider. The task began with the preparation of fine vellum, very thin yet strong. Colours of “great purity and lasting intensity had to be obtained, ground and mixed” (Mitchel 2). Endless exact lines of script had to be faultlessly copied. Gold leaf was delicately gilded and patterned on backgrounds. Consequently, they are the superb combination of artistry, craftsmanship and religious devotion. Despite their size, those books were monumental works of art. In fact, the arduous creation of a manuscript was an exercise of faith both to reader and to the illuminator.
By the fifteenth century the number of people wanting and using books seems almost unlimited. Parshall and Schoch say state that “the extreme popularization of books which forms so distinctive a feature of the end of the Middle Ages, give way to printing” (3). Relief prints were the earliest efficient means of reproducing a complex image in large numbers. For the first time, it became possible for a very large number of people to possess an image of their own, however printing from woodblocks had been practiced in Asia for centuries before it developed in Europe.
The individualism of piety played an important rule as well at the invention of printing. The increase in the private ownership of images “corresponded, in terms of history of piety, to an increasing individualization of religious practice” (Parshall and Schoch 40). Likewise, the tendency to individualization and a movement toward extraliturgical forms of devotion is a phenomenon that might be seen as a beginning among the mendicant movements of the thirteenth century. ‘Image prints’, also, began to be produced in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century. They were all religious subjects, roughly cut in simple outline, and probably intended as charms.
Saint Christopher from Buxheim was, presumably, the first securely dated woodcut. The aesthetic fascination with the first woodcuts was a response to the simple structure of black-and-white lines. We can see in the composition, to the left of the engraving, that the artist has introduced, without working the perspective, some element from nature. In the foreground a figure is seen conducting a donkey supplied with a sack towards a water-mill; while by the perpendicular a figure is seen bearing a full sack from the back-door of the mill towards the cottage.
To the right is seen a hermit, holding a large lantern to guide St. Christopher, as he crosses the stream. The whole subject, though expressed by a manner of few lines, is not executed in the very effortless style of art. Hatchings were used in the draperies to create toned and shading effects. Also oblique and curved lines are noted in the saint’s robe and mantle which would do credit to a proficient. It is executed in a bold and free manner.
Chatto points that “the date “Millesimo ccc xx tercio”—1423—is perceived at the right-hand corner, at the foot of the impression where the two verses lie”. The verses may be translated as:
“Each day that thou the likeness of St. Christopher shalt see,
That day no frightful form of death shall male an end of thee” (62).
They refer to a popular superstition, which persuaded people to believe that “the day they would see an image of St. Christopher, they should not encounter a violent death, nor die without confession” (Chatto 63). As we mentioned before, people in Middle Ages were afraid of death due to the recurrent battles.
Manuscripts illuminations and printing were both powerful techniques for a variety of intentions. Books that used those methods were created for many reasons, including the rise of the middle class, fear of death, individualism of religion and for political propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, for many years the art of printing and the manuscripts lived side by side in apparent harmony. Printing was indeed a media revolution, its technique made it possible for images and books to become a mean of communication to an incomparable degree.
**** I had some issues with formatting and paragraphing ****
© Marcela Machado Vanègue
Alexander, J.G. Jonathan. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. Yale: Yale University Press, 1992.
Bland, David. A History of Book Illustration. California: University of California Press, 1969.
Chatto, William Andrew. A Treatise on Wood Engraving, Historical and Practical. London: Charles Knight and CO. Ludgate Street, 1839.
De Hamel, Christopher. A History of Illuminated Manuscripts. London: Phaidon Press, 1994.
Meiss, Millard and Edith W. Kirsch. The Visconti Hours. New York: George Braziller,1972.
Mitchel, Sabrina. Medieval Manuscript Painting. New York: The Viking Press,1962.
Parshall, Peter and Rainer Schoch. Origins of European Printmaking. Yale: Yale University Press, 2005.