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The Northern Renaissance in miniature.

ILLUMINATING the Renaissance: the Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting at the Royal Academy is at the same time less sparkling and more memorable than Gothic: Art for England, 1400-1547, the recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. From the moment one passed the dramatically presented entrance to Gothic, one's emotions were heightened: it is the purpose of drama to promote spurious emotion. One was overwhelmed by the coup de theatre of the four sixteenth-century heraldic beasts from Cumbria, stupendous and spot-lit: the genuflecting griffin, the ram leaping to uphold its banner, the majestic salmon and the crown-collared bull licking its lips with its gilded tongue. The alternation of dimness and light and the son et lumiere temporarily beguiled one into supposing that something meaningful was taking place, although what was on display was often trivial (old ecclesiastical vestments and Dick Whittington's spoons) or crassly arranged. Two of the supreme treasures of late medieval illumination (the Duke of Bedford's Salisbury Breviary and the Bedford Psalter and Book of Hours) were stacked, open among other prayer-books in a barely visible pile. They should have been lent to the Royal Academy, which likes to make exhibits discernible. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a confused institution. Originally, as a collection of ornamental art, it was a repository for objects from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Since then, less by intent than by haphazard accretion, it has absorbed Renaissance sculptures and artefacts, Raphael cartoons, musical instruments, portrait miniatures, Punjabi pictures, posters, fashion-plates and much more. It remains a museum rather than an art gallery: a museum largely of design and applied art. Gothic was a well staged show, whilst Illuminating the Renaissance is a revelation.

The illuminators of fifteenth-century manuscript books are generally shuffled off by art historians into corners, niches and footnotes. One wanders in search of names mostly as forgotten as those of the masons of Winchester and Ely. It is a pity one cannot rescue them from their anonymity, these Masters of this and that, and those known only by librarians' shelf-marks. Our ignorance imposes code-numbers, and there is little allurement in news about Fitzwill. Ms. 257a, as distinct from Simon Bening's Presentation in the Temple.

Identification is further confused by the collaboration of several artists on one manuscript, such as The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, and the number of their assistants contributing individual components, such as borders and initials. Their intricate work sometimes spanned decades. The Duke of Bedford's Salisbury Breviary (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) took thirty-six years and was still left unfinished. It was, after all, the age of Le Roman de la Rose (which occupied two successive poets for a total of forty years) and the cathedral-builders.

Often an illumination is equal to a panel painting of the time. Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Gerard David were accomplished in both forms. Although the pigments were the same, ranging from costly exotic ultramarine to local vegetable dyes such as madder and indigo, a radical change of technique was needed when they were mixed with egg-white or plant-gum rather than oil. The presence of a text further enforced versatility. The Baptism of Christ was one of three miniatures which van Eyck contributed to a missal for John, Count of Holland, in c. 1443. (As if to illustrate the complications of the study of manuscript books, part of the missal was bound into a Book of Hours for the bibliophile duc de Berry that later became known as the Milan-Turin Book of Hours. Two other Books of Hours remained in the Duke's collection, the more famous of which was Les Tre's Riches Heures now in Chantilly.)

The arrangement of van Eyck's miniature ingeniously coheres with the text. Above the prayer for the Feast of St John the Baptist is painted the birth of St John in a bed hung with scarlet velvet in an opulent Flemish interior. The crafty perspective leads to a glazed passage where Zacharias, his father, records St John's name in a notebook. In the foreground a cat and a dog, munching their food, point their noses to the text. God, enthroned in the capital letter of the text, dispatches the Holy Ghost across the middle section of the text towards John's baptism of his cousin Jesus in the bas de page, or lower picture. There van Eyck replaced the River Jordan with the castle-terraced Rhine (Museo Civico, Turin). In an anonymous and even more enterprising illustration of hawking, part of a treatise on Sin from Genoa, birds fly not only around but also through the words of the text (British Library, London).

A centrepiece at the entrance to Illuminating the Renaissance, grandly attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, is the frontispiece to Jean Wauquelin's rendering of The Chronicles of Hainaut (1448). Wauquelin slanted his version of the original Latin to please Duke Philip of Burgundy by justifying his seizure of the southern Flemish earldom of Hainaut from his cousin Jaqueline in 1443. Wauquelin probably presented his work to Philip, flatteringly called 'the Good' in the winter of 1448, since it was not listed among Philip's books until 1449. That it is winter is evident from the frontispiece. Philip has looped a hooded hat round his withered long face. The formidable Chancellor Rolin, who converses eye-to-eye with Our Lady in van Eyck's portrait, has tucked his hands into his fur-lined sleeves.

Under a canopy backed with a robe of honour Philip, the ruler of Flanders,

rears his short frame up, unsmiling, sharply belted, on his spindling legs. Even the awesome Rolin and his neighbour, the Bishop of Tournai, wear the dandified extensions to their trunk-hose, absurdly lengthened and tapered at the toes, which are favoured by the duke, his son Charles the Foolhardy, and his courtiers. The Order of the Golden Fleece, which most wear, does not keep them warm. The arched patten-clogs under their feet fend off the cold diffused by the tiled floor, on which a lordly hound reposes.

That Rogier, whose command of anatomy can be seen in his Last Judgement (Hotel Dieu, Beaune) of c. 1446, painted this archaism is far from plausible. Whatever the adjustments demanded by painting in an unfamiliar medium, he would not have unlearned his figurative skill and made do with stick-men and near caricature. The frontispiece is charming in its late-Gothic way, armorial and lustrous with gold leaf, but it is not the way of Rogier van der Weyden.

There are better reasons to accept Petrus Christus's authorship of the miniature of the Trinity in the Hours of Paul van Overtwelt (Bibliotheque Royale, Brussels). Allowing for the differences in tone between oil-paint on wood and tempera on parchment, the central figure of Christ as a Man of Sorrows is a repetition of the tiny pathos of Petrus's panel of The Man of Sorrows (Barber Institute, Birmingham), even to the flowering crown of thorns, the broad-cheeked, prominent-nosed face and the asymmetrical torso with its triangular navel. Both the panel and the illumination come from the same decade, during which Petrus and Overtwelt were fellow-citizens of Bruges, with its reliquary of the Holy Blood that flows from Christ's side in both pictures, and fellow-members of the same patrician Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, patronised by the dukes of Burgundy.

Gerard David, that lyrical businessman of painting who seemingly could summon up inspiration at will, Memlinc's imitator and rival who could render scenes of convincing tenderness and gross cruelty with impartial aplomb, painted miniatures in an overflow of his vast competence and energy: demure, winning angels and eagerly kind saints in the Breviary and the Book of Hours of Isabella of Castile (British Library, London, and Cleveland Museum).

In spite of such august rivalry, the heroes of Illuminating the Renaissance are Simon Marmion and Simon Bening, which is a special triumph for Marmion, since his illuminations, gifted though they are, do not match the technical accomplishment and contemplative vision of his panel-paintings, such as his St Bertin polyptych in Berlin. A citizen of Valenciennes, he worked as a young man in the nearby cities of French Flanders. He attracted the attention of Duke Philip of Burgundy in 1467, when Marmion was about forty years old, and spent most of his remaining twenty-two years on commissions for the Burgundian court.

For Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, Marmion painted a frontispiece in 1475 for a Latin work of the preceding century, De Spiritu Guido, newly translated as The Vision of the Soul of Guy de Thurno. Guy's ghost visits his widow to describe Purgatory to her and her priest. In the picture the ghost is invisible, but his unseen presence may be discerned from the reactions of the bystanders, especially the priest (a Benedictine from the St Bertin Altarpiece) who is explaining the doctrine of Purgatory to him. The widow's small thickset neighbours, gathered in the plain, seemly room, are doggedly attentive as the priest, comically, explains the afterlife to a ghost (Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

Also for Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV of England and consort of Duke Charles the Foolhardy, Marmion illustrated fourteen episodes from The Visions of Chevalier Tondal: all on show but, deplorably, only four reproduced in the catalogue, since that would have curtailed the self-aggrandising essays of the contributors to a catalogue which begins at page 79. The Duchess, who was so interested in the adventures of the soul after death, had commissioned a French translation from the Latin Visiones of Marcus, a twelfth-century Irish monk in Regensburg, which anticipated Dante's Divine Comedy. Tondal, a dissipated knight, experiences a coma in which he travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. He is led by a solicitous angel who sometimes gestures, sometimes explains, sometimes takes his frail naked soul by the hand. Through borders of fronds, scrolls and spring flowers Simon Marmion dogs Tondal from his supposed death: in Hell cowering from an unenticing invitation into the flaming cave of a minotaur-like figure; through Purgatory, where he meets the 'bad but not very bad' and the 'good but not very good'; to the fringes of Paradise. There Tondal repents of his misdeeds and returns to the holy candour of a life untroubled by sin (Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

In tracking the chevalier's underworld tour Marmion followed the text, which explains how the chevalier was frightened into behaving well. No pity is expressed, as in Dante's Inferno, for the sufferers. That Marmion could both express and elicit compassion may be seen in his Sacrifice of Abraham in the Huth Book of Hours (British Library, London). Among wispy trees in an almost Umbrian landscape, a Turk-turbaned Abraham grips his son's hair as the sad submissive creature tremulously prays, his toes curled in fear. Grimly careful, Abraham is in a butcher's apron. With cold forethought he has erected an elaborate altar and stacked firewood, but he looks relieved as an angel arrests the swing of his decapitating sword. His surrogate and equally docile victim, the ram, kneels in a nearby copse.

One of Marmion's most engaging pictures is taken from the legend of St Bernard, which affirms, perhaps too physically, the notion that the saint, who preached eighty sermons on the Virgin Mary as the espoused of God, was nourished by her. St Bernard, in a vision, saw her bare her breast and press from her nipple, which suckled the Christchild, a jet of milk that fell on the eloquent lips of her worshipper. Apart from Marmion, among well known painters only Murillo has included that detail in a Vision of St Benedict. Marmion's version was cut out of a prayer-book of c. 1478 and is now in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Encouraged by God, Who raises a crucifix from a blue cloud, Mary lifts a neckerchief from her small swollen breast; her plain, high-coloured features transfigured by her boundless benignity. The infant Jesus, with a gracious look, takes St Bernard's crosier whilst St Bernard, in his white gloves, joins his hands in prayer.

Marmion was a courtly painter who shared his patrons' seigniorial disdain for those who worked their land. One of his last works was a miniature in La Flora, a Book of Hours either bespoken or compiled for Charles VIII of France: The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Bibliotheca Nazionale, Naples). Marmion observes a stereotype of the peasantry, snub-nosed, heavy-jawed, tousle-haired, as they shade their eyes from the brilliance of the alerting angel. Marmion's treatment suggests a comparison with an artist technically even more accomplished than he as an illuminator, the Flemish Master of the Dresden Prayerbook, who collaborated with him several times.

The Dresden Master painted a virtuoso miniature, sophisticated, observant and elegantly designed, to decorate a translation of Valerius Maximus: Valerius Maximus wrote a moralised classical history under the patronage of the Emperor Tiberius, who indeed was short of moral instruction. In the picture a clerical looking Valerius points out the contrast between sobriety and drunkenness to Tiberius, who is dressed in the Master's notion of a travelling ruler, both booted and sceptred, with a diadem on his hat, as they stand at the entrance to a feudal hall. The gentry at the high table are sober and attentive as they listen, wine-glasses suspended, to a probably demure anecdote told by one of their number.

At the lower table the peasantry pay no heed to the young tippler who, with uplifted hand and hammering fist harangues the air around him. Alongside, another peasant expresses his bleary-eyed bonhomie by clasping his comrade by the neck and pouring wine not into his proffered beaker but on the tablecloth. At the end of their bench a further toper falls asleep, tipping his beaker over to the other side of the table, where a maidservant tries to drag her dead-drunk partner back to the bench from which he has collapsed, his unlaced codpiece gaping, in shameless intoxication. An older serving-woman hastens, with confused steps, to throw a bowl of water over him. They are all watched by a surprised sheepdog. Through the open doors one views a landscape with a cathedral and a trimly built manor-house. In a nearby lake a horse slakes its innocuous thirst as vehemently as the peasants (Getty Museum). The Dresden Master's treatment of the peasants' drunken revelry is part of a tradition that persisted well into the seventeenth century in the kermesses and alehouse scenes of Brouwer, Teniers and Adrian van Ostade.

The Dresden Master was kinder to the shepherds in his Nativity on the page next to Marmion's Annunciation to the Shepherds in La Flora Book of Hours, where two dance in heavy-footed celebration of the birth of the Messiah, whilst another plays his bagpipe. Only Joseph, earnestly watched by the meek ox and donkey, kneels in reverent contemplation. Mary, smiling, reads a prayer-book, akin to the one she appears in, with patrician composure. Minute though the picture is, it is set in a landscape in which travellers trudge along a frozen river and up a hill to a Netherlandish Jerusalem.

Still more delectable are the landscapes of Simon Bening, especially his delicate miniatures of the months of the year, not all of which, unforgivably, are reproduced in the catalogue. Particularly enticing is The Month of May, a dreamlike miniature panorama of a city such as Bruges in all its grey-stone love-liness. Although packed with impish detail, the composition is clear, uncluttered and imposing: dominated by a bridge which leads through a towering gatehouse into the square in front of a belfry-topped citadel. Behind the stronghold, majestic pinnacled houses are guarded by a many-towered city-wall. Gables and finials rise on all sides, and the magical expanse is all contained in a space of 140 square centimetres. Such is Bening's lyrical veracity that one could plot an imaginary walk through the city. Storks migrating to Scandinavia rest for a while on the daisied and germandered turf of the riverbank. On the river a pleasure-boat decked with foliage and a red awning prepares to pass under an arch of the bridge to the music of the flautist and lutenist aboard. Across the river a laundress scrubs clothes on the water-steps. In the square merrymakers join hands in preparation for a round-dance (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). While this miniature has been singled out for its special enchantment, most of Bening's calendar-miniatures are in a rural setting and, following such precedents as the duc de Berry's Tre's Riches Heures, depict the labours or activities associated with each month. At least one tiny bas de page was cut out and framed as a straightforward landscape: March, or the Gathering of Firewood (Getty Museum). Here we see Bening's resemblance to his contemporary Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel neither disdained nor mocked the labourers of the fields. They are orderly, diligent and respectable within their own conventions, as in his two pictures of peasant weddings. Thus Brueghel loops out of the line between Marmion and Brouwer. In his famous series of The Months, some dispersed, some lost, Brueghel shows a fondness, which he shared with Bening, for scenes of workers in a landscape. The affinity between Bening's Gathering Firewood and Brueghel's version of the same subject (Barber Institute, Birmingham) is remarkable.

With the waning of interest in manuscript painting in the middle of the sixteenth century, when Bening, born in 1483, was no longer young, he would have lost much of his occupation had he not turned to pure landscape on a tiny scale, and to portrait miniatures on parchment, such as that of Henry of Nassau, Chamberlain to the Emperor Charles V. Nassau is sharp-eyed and self-assured in his furs and his Order of the Golden Fleece, and stretches his explanatory hand into the border of the picture. Like Chardin, Bening painted his first self-portrait at the age of about seventy-five and, like Chardin, included his spectacles. Bening has taken them off and holds them but, as one can see from the marks on the bridge of his nose, has only just done so. His face is benign and shrewd; his puckered eyes are weary but sharply attentive. Like St Luke, the patron of painters, he is depicting the Virgin.

Gothic and Illuminating the Renaissance were two steps into the advancing mists of an ever-receding past; or two pasts sometimes fusing and sometimes dividing: the piety of private religious devotion, and the ignobility of the Hundred Years' War, with its vain destruction that spread into the Wars of the Roses; not merely a mist but a miasma through which Richard the Third ferreted and slaughtered. Two memories persist, both from the Gothic exhibition: a bare eroded window-frame that once held figured glass, and a sheet of parchment ruled for a text that was never written. With so much lost, one takes heart in the exposition at Illuminating the Renaissance of what has been preserved.

Gothic: Art for England, 1400-1547, closed at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 18 January.

Illuminating the Renaissance: the Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe continues at the Royal Academy until 22 February, 10.00-18.00 daily, with an extension until 22.00 on Fridays. Entry costs [pounds sterling]8.00, with concessions; paperback catalogue with over 220 highly magnifiable colour-illustrations, [pounds sterling]27.95.
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Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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