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Crowned with Light
The Art of Gothic Manuscripts
The period of European manuscript illumination predominant throughout the thirteenth century and into the first decades of the fourteenth is called “Gothic”. In many ways, Gothic manuscripts, like the totality of Gothic art, stand as a bridge between the ages posthumously called the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the culmination of cultural, socio-economic and religious developments over the centuries since the decline of the Roman Empire and beginning to show signs of stylistic tendencies and technical advancements which would come, after further hints in the fourteenth and early fifteenth-century International Gothic period, to their full flowering in the late fifteenth-sixteenth century Renaissance. Through an examination of the styles, patterns, themes and historical context of Gothic manuscripts, a deeper understanding and appreciation of their place in the history of art can be achieved.
Before exploring their artistic qualities, it can be helpful to first consider the historical context in which Gothic manuscripts were made. The thirteenth century is most often called the High Middle Ages, the pinnacle of medieval civilization prior to its gradual evolution into the Renaissance during the fourteenth century. The term Gothic, like medieval or Middle Ages, was itself invented during the Renaissance as a “strongly pejorative” critique of preceding centuries, with the thousand years between Antiquity and its supposed rebirth or rediscovery by the Italian humanists of the Renaissance seen as a “middle” period of barbarism, ignorance and superstition in which the culture and learning of Antiquity were squandered by the Germanic tribes (hence “Gothic”) who took control of western Europe. As Régine Pernoud explained:
[T]he classical vision imposed almost uniformly on the West admitted no other design, no other criterion than classical antiquity… consequently, the closer one came to the works of that time, the better one would attain perfection.
Whether this treatment by Renaissance scholars was accurate, and how they came to view the legacy of their ancestors in such a negative light, can be clarified by a study of the history which culminated in the Gothic age.
After the turmoil in western Europe which followed the breakdown of Roman imperial authority, following the transition of the emperor to the Byzantine East, the people of Germanic origin who had gradually come to form the main bulk of the Roman military (including the Gothic Roman officer Alaric, who infamously sacked the city of Rome after not being given the honors by the emperor which he believed were due) and whose highest officers were appointed as regional commanders by the emperor, began to form their own kingdoms. Their unification, however, once exacted by the power of the Roman emperor, now fell to an authority whose instrument was not martial but spiritual: the Roman Catholic Church.
The Germanic tribe who helped secure this newfound unity, out of the disorder of the Merovingian kings and the outlying Celtic and Slavic peoples, were the Franks, whose most significant figure was Charlemagne. Baptized in Rome by the pope himself, Charlemagne represents the beginning of what would be called Christendom: the fusion of Roman and Germanic cultures under the spiritual umbrella of the Catholic Church. Inspired by the heritage of Rome to which all succeeding European civilizations would aspire and taught to purify these elements and those of his own Frankish culture by the principles of Catholic doctrine, Charlemagne utilized the remnants of Roman learning preserved by Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monks in the British Isles with the aid of the English scholar Alcuin; together, they devised the Carolingian script, the basis of Gothic blackletter and later Renaissance italic, and initiated the medieval fixture of monastic scriptoria and schools for the dissemination and promotion of art and learning.
After the defeat of Viking and Islamic threats by the successors of the Franks, the Norse-French Normans, the civilization heralded by Charlemagne became fully solidified as Christendom, and the climax of this great effort begun at the baptism of Charlemagne in 800 came in the Gothic High Middle Ages of the thirteenth century. Contrary to Renaissance opinions, these five centuries were far from dark; rather, they made advancements, particularly in morals, law, technology and scholarship unknown even in ancient Rome, whose inheritance was treasured by the scholars and artists of Christendom long before the Renaissance. Jean Gimpel observed, “The Middle Ages produced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known.”
The Roman and Germanic influences on the peoples of the High Middle Ages were seen through the prism of their Catholic faith, and this is most evident in their illuminated manuscripts. For the people of medieval Christendom, the most important and pervasive sign of perfection was order; this value permeated every element of society, from the integral hierarchy of the feudal and guild systems prioritized under the Catholic Church as the lower to the higher, to the unique symmetry and completeness of Scholastic summae, and finally in Gothic art, including architecture, fashion, painting and manuscripts.
Gothic manuscripts, by far the most numerous and well-preserved of all medieval art (including over four thousand extant miniatures), give the clearest example of the sacramental imagination and incarnational, orderly mind of medieval artists, by which the spiritual is expressed through the physical. While the manuscripts of preceding centuries consisted primarily of Gospel books, in this age full Bibles, Psalters and the new Books of Hours came to the forefront, but alongside these religious works, the traditional monastic scriptoria and the growing class of professional lay scribes and illuminators, both itinerant and in their own workshops frequently attached to religious institutions, continued the medieval tradition of producing secular or profane literature as well, including classics from Antiquity and contemporary works of courtly romance, historical and legal documents, and many other genres.
While Gothic manuscripts continued to exhibit the influences which they inherited, particularly from Celtic, Carolingian and Romanesque art, another source, opened to them by the influx of refugees fleeing Islamic expansion, derived from Byzantine iconographers. The sophistication and mysticism of Eastern icons contributed to the growth in realism, scenic depth and thematic creativity during this period. These elements were combined with the emphasis on illumination which already characterized western medieval manuscripts, whose artists saw their works, particularly those which were religious in nature, as not mere records of information or purely works of art but as devotional texts, whose retention and spiritual meditation could be greatly enhanced by illumination. In a society whose members were mostly illiterate, and in books which largely lacked any kind of page numbers or divisions, illuminations helped their readers, both clerical/monastic and lay, to remember what they read and to find their place. However, these practical concerns were ultimately subordinate to the sanctification of the imagination, the body and the material world in general which was and is central to Catholicism, and from this inspiration, religious devotion was not a purely intellectual or purely physical discipline but a harmony of both through the medium of art.
Gothic manuscripts realized their Catholic worldview, as well as their medieval cultural heritage, using specific artistic styles and themes. Employing parchment and vellum made from sheep and calf skins, whose durability and versatility made possible the hand-made, textured, vibrant and incredibly intricate miniature paintings, full-page portraits, decorated and historiated initials, borders, capital flourishes and marginalia which solidify medieval manuscripts’ place at the heights of human art. During this age, quilted or Byzantine-style gold backgrounds were gradually being interspersed with scenes of more realistic depth and perspective, an early preview of Renaissance trends. Lacking the ethereal Byzantine or classicist Renaissance idealism, Gothic illuminations portray human figures with the bodies and expressions of ordinary people, usually in period clothing and settings, granting us a window into the daily lives of medieval people and lending a sense of humanity and familiarity to personalities from secular and religious history. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
[The medieval imagination] is a realising imagination… the extremely factual word-painting; the details, the comparisons, designed at whatever cost of dignity to make sure that we see exactly what he saw… The Middle Ages are unrivalled, till we reach quite modern times, in the sheer foreground fact, the ‘close-up’.
Gothic art, despite its Germanic connotation, grew up in and centered on France, as can be seen with Gothic cathedrals originating in that nation and in the production of Gothic manuscripts pouring out from the great Norman monasteries and workshops; like Scholasticism, Paris was at the heart of this great surge of artistry. In the centrality of France, the continuity between the work of Charlemagne and the Gothic age is made clear. However, the scribes and illuminators of Italy, Germany, Spain and most especially England, where monasticism was prevalent until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, produced their own masterpieces.
Alongside the illuminations themselves, called so because of their bright colors (whose light of intelligibility was seen as one of the essential attributes of beauty by medieval scholars) and especially their use of reflective gold and silver leaf, the medieval script of Gothic blackletter is equally recognizable. From the elegance and precision of Carolingian minuscule and continuing its traditions of diminuendo, in which Roman capitals lead into minuscule scripts in the body of the text, blackletter, or textura because of its almost quilted thickness, functioned as the predominant script of Europe for centuries due to its boldness, clarity and regularity. Organized in pre-arranged alignment by scribes allowing blank spaces for the use of illuminators, jet-black Gothic script acts as a powerful contrast to the vibrant, striking miniatures and intricate knotwork and acanthus leaf borders of the pages, made, like the quills and inks of scribes, by the artists’ own resources of egg-based tempera, exotic paints and metallic leaf.
Several artistic styles, with those already mentioned, were common features of Gothic manuscripts, often repeated as standard models or applications in various examples. Functioning as mysteries and narrative puzzles, miniatures and portraits used clues such as hands pointing, raised in gestures of blessing or clasped in prayer, as well as halos, iconographic colors for angels’ wings or saints’ clothing, symbols in biblical scenes such as Judas stealing a fish at the Last Supper, and many others to aid devotional contemplation. Whereas the use of manuscripts for devotion was previously limited to the breviaries and missals of priests and religious used for the Divine Office and liturgical celebrations, respectively, or in antiphonaries by choirs, the new Books of Hours helped literate laity participate in monastic religious life through a simplified version of the Office using illuminated manuscripts of their own, as an accompaniment to the popular piety of the stained glass windows, wall paintings and statues of Gothic churches. In the border marginalia, illuminators were given free rein to express their creativity, blending classical mythological imagery with contemporary themes such as chivalry and hunting and fantastic grotesques to form fascinating and entertaining comic book-like scenes of their own, usually entirely unrelated to the rest of the page and yet not considered impious or superfluous.
Even a brief analysis of Gothic manuscripts such as this can make one wonder how Renaissance humanists could view medieval art with such antipathy. As Antiquity became the exclusive standard for art, with technical skill overriding the sheer creativity, narrative and popular piety of Gothic art, the values of the Renaissance were gradually shifting away from those of medieval Christendom, which would soon fade into obscurity. Despite this, however, Gothic manuscripts endure as a striking monument to the faith, hope and love of the people who inspired them, and like Gothic cathedrals, they can continue to inspire people of all times and places to the same heights.
 Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 79.
 Pernoud, Middle Ages!, 27.
 Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (London: Black House Publishing, 2012), 110-111.
 Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 1.
 Pernoud, Middle Ages!, 151.
 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 206.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 39, a. 8, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.