Medieval Writing
The pictures, either full page or smaller, found in manuscript books are referred to as miniatures. This is not because they are particularly small. The term derives from the Latin minium, meaning red lead, with which the pictures were initially drawn. However, compared to painting in other media, they are small, so the term has acquired a resonance which diverges from its strict etymology. Manuscript miniatures are the most prolifically surviving examples of medieval art and some are of the most elegant quality. The study of miniatures is a branch of art history in its own right. They have been extensively illustrated and written about. Schools of painting and individual artists have been identified.
There are many books illustrating the beautiful decorations in medieval manuscript books, For historical and analytical approaches see Pächt 1986 also Alexander 1992 also de Hamel 1986.
In the earlier part of the medieval period, the scribe of a manuscript was also sometimes the illustrator, as evidenced by inscriptions and colophons.
The Bodleian Library website displays a miniature of, Hugo pictor, scribe and illustrator of a late 11th century Commentary of St Jerome on Isaiah (MS Bodley 717, f.287v, detail). The accompanying inscription confirms his function and identity.
Later, when the production of books became more commercialised, the miniaturist became a specialised job. This was the final stage of completion of a book, with the painter working under instruction to place the miniatures in the spaces assigned, with the content decided by the bookseller and client in consultation. Even the finest artist worked under orders. No wild creative flights of fantasy here. The genius had to be in the detail. There are numerous manuscripts extant with unfinished miniatures, where the process was never finally completed.
Not all manuscript miniatures were the brightly coloured and gilded productions so beloved of beautiful modern picture books. In some cases outline drawings actually represented the finished product.
Harley Psalter
The intricately drawn miniatures of the 11th century Harley Psalter (British Library, Harley 603), a copy of a 9th century Carolingian work, were executed as coloured line drawings. By permission of the British Library.
On the other hand, lavish coloured and gilded illuminations are displayed by the Louvre Webmuseum, by the University of Liège and on the Enluminures website, among others. Bibliothèque Nationale de France has many resources. The English language home page gets you into an introduction to another of the mighty collections. There is an online catalogue, several manuscript exhibitions online and a bank of online images. Mandragore allows a database search of the manuscript collection using a range of iconographic criteria. In fact, the number of websites displaying miniatures now is huge, so just check out the Links sections and settle down for an evening or so.
funerary mass As with historiated initials, the content of miniatures related to the text. They thus served as placemarkers in the text and identified the beginnings of particularly significant passages. In the case of liturgical works, they could serve as a mnemonic for the remembering of such passages and they also created a spiritual space and environment. They do not just illustrate the book, they are part of the spiritual power of the book which itself is a sacred object as well as a medium for recording sequences of words.
Above, as is usual, a 15th century book of hours displays a miniature of a funerary mass at the beginning of the section containing the vigils of the dead (National Library of Australia, MS 1097/9, f.86r), by permission of the National Library of Australia.

At right, the small kneeling figure of a canon reads the office for the dead from an enormous book at the feet of the funerary effigy of the founder of the Augustinian house of St Barthlomew, Smithfield London.

canon with book
This concept of the miniature as an aid to spirituality and devotion rather than as a text illustration is evidenced in the standard scheme of decoration of the book of hours. Each office in the section containing the hours of the Virgin generally begins with a miniature which does not directly illustrate the text. In the most common scheme it illustrates episodes from the life of the Virgin and the nativity. An alternative scheme uses scenes from the passion of Christ. These do not relate literally to the words on the page, but are aids to contemplation of holy concepts associated with the Virgin Mary.
In a 15th century book of hours (National Library of Australia, MS 1097/9, f.48r) the section on vespers of the hours of the Virgin begins with a miniature of the deposition from the cross, with the Virigin kneeling at the foot. By permission of the National Library of Australia.
Sometimes there was more than just mental contemplation involved. The book of hours tided the devout reader through life's troubles, and the images in it were regarded as efficacious as direct conduits to Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints. Images were clutched or kissed in times of strife. The little miniature on the left of Christ's face on Veronica's handkerchief is seriously smudged and I suspect we are looking at the results of somebody's ancient travails. Veronica's handkerchief, according to Christian legend but not Biblical authority, was used to wipe the suffering face of Christ during the Passion, and is therefore highly symbolic for the relief of suffering.
Miniature of St Veronica's handkerchief on a page from a 15th century French book of hours, from a private collection.



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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 3/8/2011.