Illuminated Manuscripts: Review


The Renaissance Nude
Royal Academy of Arts, London, 3rd March–2nd June 2019
reviewed by Chris Goodwin

The focus of this fascinating exhibition was the huge range of meanings the nude or nearly nude figure could have. These ranged through the Biblical (Adam and Eve, Bathsheba, Christ on the Cross, the Judgement Day) the hagiological (Saint Sebastian, the penance of St John Chrysostom), the classicising (Mantegna’s drawings of ancient reliefs), the allegorical and symbolic, the moralistic—or prurient (bath house scenes), the mythological (satyrs and nymphs, Diana, Venus) the anatomical (artists’ preparatory sketches, Vitruvian man, and an anatomical sketch by Leonardo), the censorious, the grotesque (Grien’s witches’ coven) and the pitiful (Donatello’s Jerome in the wilderness or the flagellated Christ).

One perhaps would not expect many illuminated manuscripts in an exhibition of renaissance nudes, but in fact this fascinating show gathered together some very precious illuminations. There were four depictions of Bathsheba bathing, always with long golden hair: in the Hours of Anne of France c.1473 she is merely baring her legs in the water as Kind David comes into the garden, but Hours of Guyot II Le Pelet has a full-length nude, while the Hours of Claude Molé of c.1500–1505 has a three-quarter length nude in a fountain, with insets of the King and Bathsheba in bed, Uriah struck down in battle, and the penitent King, his harp cast to the ground, praying fervently. A detached page from the Hours of Louis XII of (1498/9) in the Getty Musuem has another three-quarter length nude, with the King looking lasciviously from a palace window. There was a beautiful illumination of St Sebastian from the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany (1505–8). Much more unusually, in the Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry, by the famous Limbourg Brothers, there was a page showing a procession of flagellants—young man stripped to the waist with sheets covering their nether regions, and the cat o’ nine tails; the commentary suggested a homo-erotic intention to this surprising image. A rather saucy scene of mixed nude bathing appears in a depiction of a bathhouse by the Master of Margaret of York, in a copy of Valerius Maximus, Faits et dits memorables of 1470-80. From the Classical mythology, illustrations from Christine de Pisan’s L’épitre Othéa, a retelling of Ovid, in a copy in the Harleian MSS, 4431, include Actaeon surprising Diana in her bath and Hermaphroditus and the nymph Salmacis in a lake, and from a copy of the Roman de la Rose, Harley MS 4425, of 1490–1500 we see Zeuxis painting five nude models and Pygmalion and his statue. As always, there is an excellent exhibition guide available from the Royal Academy shop.

Elizabethan Treasures exhibition, Miniature by Hilliard and Oliver
London, National Portrait Gallery, 10th February – 19th May 2019
reviewed by Chris Goodwin

The portrait miniatures of Hilliard and Oliver, exquisite portrayals of the great men and women of state, often carried in a jewelled locket, do not come immediately to mind when we think of illuminated manuscripts, yet they certainly can be regarded as a late flowering of the illuminator’s art. They were painted on vellum, often mounted on a piece of a playing card, and, as we learn in this exhibition, the tools – dog’s tooth and ferret’s tooth burnishers, the finest of brushes, ground pigments held in seashells, gold and silver leaf and size – are all familiar to the manuscript illuminator. So too are the techniques; the laying of simple grounds, blue for the background, ‘carnation’ for the faces, onto which facial features were drawn. And what drawing! The detail is so fine that one needs to turn to the enlarged illustrations in the catalogue to discern details that are simply not visible to the naked eye. How is it possible to show, in the width and breadth of a few miilimetres, not merely physiognomy but personality – the intellectual confidence of the 18 year-old Francis Bacon, the gruffness of Hilliard’s own father, the wit and intelligence of John Donne, the hint of narcissism in the young and handsome Earl of Southampton, and the contrasting personalities of two little girls aged 4 and 5? Not to mention the supreme self-confidence of both artists’ self portraits. This art is truly miraculous.

All the most famous and widely reproduced Elizabethan and Jacobean miniatures are here: the young man surrounded by flames, the young man holding hands with a mysteriously reaching down from the sky, Herbert of Cherbury lying in a meadow in his armour, the young man in white amidst the thorns of a rosebush, and of course famous paintings of Queen Elizabeth. Here is a who’s who of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court life; but one of the two of the miniatures have never been shown in public before; and there are other treats – such as a magnificent full-size panel portrait of Elizabeth I, wonderfully capturing her keen and intelligent gaze, and playing with our perceptions, since at first glance the image seems flat and formal, but as we look longer we say all sorts of subtle modelling in the sleeves, the waist, and even a delicate dyed purple costume feather. The exhibition also includes the surviving manuscript copy of Hilliard’s treatise on limning – he says that none should meddle in limning but a gentleman, who should wear no fabric but silk! There is also a manuscript, a college charter, illuminated in part by Hilliard.

Nicholas Hilliard was born around the year that Henry VIII died, 1547, and received the patronage of the Queen and Robert Dudley, Earl Leicester; Isaac Oliver represented a younger generation; born in 1567 he was just a little younger than Shakespeare and Dowland. His great patron was the Earl of Essex. One senses a generational difference and a moment of artistic inflection. The art of Hilliard, with its very limited use of shadow for modelling, and features simply (but miraculously) drawn in, looks back to the manuscript illumination tradition, and to Holbein; Isaac Oliver, who was preferred by the younger generation, represented by the ill-fated Prince Henry, looks towards oil painting; his miniatures of Christ, and of Diana, are reminiscent of the soft but fully coloured modelling of Correggio or Murillo.

An unmissable exhibition – but if you did miss it, an excellent illustrated catalogue is still available from the National Portrait Gallery shop, online.