San Francisco

“Illuminated Manuscripts”

Univer­sity Art Gallery, Berkeley

Fifty-seven single pages from illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, from the 10th to the early 16th centuries, spon­sored by the University of California Committee for Arts and Lectures. Pre­senting a European art form that has survived the ravages of time and tech­nocracy, in a fine and extensive show, mostly religious in theme. It includes both illuminations (in a precise sense, the playful enlargement of the initial letters and opening phrases) executed by team work, and illustrations from individual, often noted, artists. They were assembled from private collections and public museums throughout the U.S. by William M. Millican, who, as Director Emeritus of the Cleveland Mu­seum of Art, made deep and knowledge­able raids on that museum’s famous collection. He has organized a show which reconstructs the early develop­ment of book making and of European painting; one might have wished for the inclusion of one or two exhibits from Spain, and something from the Irish monks of St. Gall in this thorough exhibit.

One of the most expressive pages in the show is the Swiss Romanesque illumination of Morelia of Gregorius (12th Century, Engleberg Codex 20), attributed to Abbot Frowin, which fuses many indigenous and prior elements. Although the near presence of Rome is also felt, with its new structuring of the page and firmly outlined forms––­the areas thus designated consolidated and welded together into an abstract geometrical unity. The Abbot’s minia­ture, while not so national in flavor or classical in style as the Romanesque in Italy, is yet more personal in expres­sion than the magnificent Anglo-Roman­esque recto and verso of a single page by the German, Helmarshausen, depict­ing the Nativity (in a grotto) and St. Matthew. In both exhibits the figure takes on mass and form which holds a sense of organic life, not through ana­tomical articulation but by linear pat­tern.

Later pages in the Gothic manuscript style make informative comment on developments in northern and central Europe. This style, like Gothic sculp­ture, resulted from a humanizing of types and an inner drive to intricacy. Clear miniscule changed to the angular, buttressed black Gothic script, and, during the 12th and 13th centuries, illumination spread in vegetative bars from the initials, which in turn were expanded in shallow spatial fashion to accommodate action. Romance and drolerie invaded the margins, as they did in the cathedral sculpture. In the full-page scenes, too, new spatial ar­rangements competed with older pat­ternistic compositions. And 14th cen­tury pages pulsated with the secular activity of the margins, which were given up to extending bars and vines, while illuminators began to assume defi­nite personal qualities, lining the ini­tials with dramatic scenes enacted in cathedral architecture before checkered backgrounds.

Gothic influence remained longest in France. The last step is seen in the International Gothic Style of the turn of the 15th century, in the pages painted or influenced by Jean Fouquet and the Limbourg Brothers, when painting in the North literally lifted itself out of the pages of the manuscript onto the easel. This transformation took a some­what different direction in Italy when, in the 15th century, panel painting seems to have invaded the domain of the manuscript by way of a celebrated succession of illuminators. Painters of­ten turned to doing manuscript minia­tures, while illuminators emerged as individual artists, as in the case of Timoteo Viti, the early master of Ra­phael. One notes this especially in the manuscripts with the initial “R” enclos­ing a miniature for the Mass of the Dead, convincingly attributed to Co­simo Tura because of its crisp, linear modeling and nervous dramatic expres­sion, and in Viti’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, technically part of a manu­script but actually a prototype of Ren­aissance painting.

Hand illumination of books, as an art form, had gone as far as it could when the invention of printing, in the 15th century, terminated it and in doing so tapped the rich resources of the graphic arts.

––E. M. Polley