Illumination, Art of

Illumination, Art of The art of illuminating manuscripts with gold and color seems to prevail in countries where the art of printing is unknown. It has been erroneously supposed to have been originated by Christianity; it is certain, however, that under its sway it was brought to its known perfection. The time when the Christians first adapted the art of illumination it is impossible to determine definitely, but it most probably dates from the time when the ancient fashion of rolled manuscripts (comp. the article THOIAH), which the Jews still preserve, was changed for the present book form. The earliest specimens extant are from the first half of the 2nd century; and we find St. Jerome, no later than the 4th century, complaining of the abuse of filling up books with ornamental capital letters of an enormous size. In the 5th century many of the MSS. were illuminated, especially copies of the Gospels and other Scriptures. They were written on a blue ground in silver, with the name of God in gold. By the influence of Byzantine luxury there were even produced some copies on a gilded ground in letters of black. One of the best specimens of the perfection to which the art had been brought in that century is the Codex Argenteus, or copy of the Gothic (Ulphilas's) version of the N.T. in letters of silver, with the initials in gold, now preserved in the royal library at Upsala. It is also supposed that at that time the various schools of illumination originated. "Rome had succumbed to barbarian violence, and her arts, though decaying, still exerted an influence in this new style of painting, then in its infancy. That influence was naturally stronger in Italy, and therefore the early illuminations of the Italian school bear traces of the old Roman style. In France the same influence was manifest, mixed up with national peculiarities, and this school was consequently called the Franco-Roman." But, remarkable as it may appear, it is now found that Ireland was far in advance of other nations in the knowledge of this art, as she was generally in advance of them in the scale of civilization. "Her fame had extended over Europe, her monasteries were adorned with men of great piety and learning, who were the trainers of the leading spirits of the age. She was the first to break through the dense darkness of the times, and, as she gave Christianity to Scotland, so she also imparted to the Saxons the art of illumination." The first illuminator seems to have been Dagaus, abbot of Iniskeltra, who flourished in the second half of the 6th century. Of English illumination, the finest specimen extant is from the 10th century, the celebrated "Benedictional" by St. Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, written and painted between 963 and 984. In the 13th century, and even down to its decline three centuries later, the art was greatly furthered by Bonaventura's series of meditations on the life of Christ, which gave minute descriptions of the several scenes of which it treated, and thus formed a sort of ideal. During the Byzantine period it was mainly the Scriptures, the works of the fathers, and books for Church service generally that were illuminated. Later, volumes for private devotion were also thus enriched, until, at the close of the 15th century, the art of illumination was generally applied not only to books, but to MSS. of almost any sort. The invention of printing seemed to sound its death-knell, and it is not to be wondered at that the monks, who, being cut off from secular business, and having found employment by the application of this art, then made a strong resistance to the introduction of an art that would deprive them, sooner or later, of their own employment. But the popular mind had become so accustomed to the illumination of works that its extinction was much more gradual than had been anticipated, and the earliest printed books were not only illuminated, but the printers even attempted, by a process of their art, to supersede manual labor. Perhaps the latest effort of this kind was an edition of the Liturgy, brought out in 1717 by John Short, entirely engraved on copper plates. "The pages were surrounded by borders, and embellished with pictures and decorated initial letters." See Hill, English Monasticism, ch. 12 where may also be found the details of the work as it was carried on for centuries in the various monasteries of Europe. Brande and Cox, Dict. of Science, Literature, and Art, 2, 193 sq.

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