PRINT December 1978


The Decorated Letter, Manuscript Painting at the Court of France: The Fourteenth Century (1310–1380), and The Icon

HIGH HONORS GO TO an ongoing series of picture books dealing with medieval manuscript painting that Braziller has been publishing since last year. The project involves, in each case, the selection of some 48 full-page color plates, each with identification and commentary on the facing page, and a substantial introduction by some recognized scholar in the field, with the introduction itself fitted out with many black-and-white comparative illustrations. Each volume comes in both cloth and paper formats, the paperbacks costing in the neighborhood of $10 to $12.

It happens that I have not seen Carolingian Painting or Persian Painting, but if Carl Nordenfalk’s Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting, Kurt Weitzmann’s Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illustration and John Williams’ Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination, all of which came out in 1977, are any indication, the series was remarkable right from the start. What really commends these books is their exemplifying an open and generous scholarship, in combination with the accessible visual evidence of the plates. That is what makes them ideal for artists to think with, or also, more broadly, for the whole contemporary art audience, even though they do deal with historical material. For, if you can study the paintings illustrated as (splendid and, often enough, “abstract”) works of art, without having first to defer to pedantry, anything that you want to know about a given work is nevertheless right there, handy, and, shall we say, unobfuscated. Besides, the volumes in this series have a crisp, forthright look that is not only “handsome” but also intelligent—as, for instance, in the calculated but unostentatious way the pages, carrying their plates, turn like the leaves of the manuscript books that they illustrate. And the plates themselves are bright and clear without appearing jazzy. Thus gold, where it appears, does glow like gold leaf, but without looking as if it were printed by Hallmark Cards.

This year’s offerings, of which I have seen J. J. G. Alexander’s wonderful The Decorated Letter, François Avril’s survey of the elegantly monotonous Manuscript Painting at the Court of France: the Fourteenth Century (1310–1380), and another really fine Weitzmann volume, The Icon, can be recommended with complete enthusiasm. As with the works already available, the selection of plates still seems carefully balanced between monuments of such importance that no general discussion could leave them out, and really beautiful enlightening pieces that have no doubt only been familiar to specialists. The Braziller series amounts, most importantly for us, to an informed presentation of extraordinary examples of early painting. It is useful on the most directly artistic basis (yet without having to risk wandering astray into misunderstanding or ignorance).

Joseph Masheck