The “Manual”—Its discovery—Its origin and contents—Didron's translation—The “Compendium” of Theophilus—Its contents—English version by Hendrie—Benedictine and Cistercian illumination—How they differ—Character of monastic architects and artists.

About the twelfth century comes forward the mention of a certain manual minutely detailing every process of painting, and laying down rules for the due composition and arrangement of every subject to be represented in the sacred history and other books connected with divine service. How long such a manual had been in use is unknown, but it is thought that something of the kind must have existed from the time, at least, of Justinian, perhaps earlier. The manual here referred to was found by M. Didron at Sphigmenou, on Mt. Athos. This little monastery is said to have been founded by the Empress Pulcheria, sister of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger. She died in the year 453. Theodosius, it may be remembered, was himself an admirable penman and illuminator, so much so as to have acquired the cognomen of Kalligráphos.

The monastery is built in a narrow valley by the seaside, between three little hills, and as it were “squeezed” in, and hence its name (in Greek σφιγμένος), which describes its situation exactly. It is occupied by about thirty unusually neat and orderly monks, who are justly proud of the few relics and curiosities which they exhibit to visitors. It was at Sphigmenou that Curzon saw the piece of ancient jewellery set with diamonds and a Russian or Bulgarian MS. of the Gospels.

The book which M. Didron found there is the copy of an older MS. which, it is said, was copied by Dionysius, one of the monks, from the works of the once celebrated master, Manuel Panselines of Thessalonica, who was the Giotto of the Byzantine school and flourished in the twelfth century. If by works the monk meant literary, it is most likely that it was the transcript of a still older document. If by works Dionysius meant paintings, it is a manual of his practice. One of his pupils, in order to propagate the art of painting which he had learnt at Thessalonica, writes down the series of subjects to be taken from the Bible, so as to epitomise the divine scheme of salvation, and describes the manner in which the events of the Old Testament, and the miracles and parables of the New, ought to be represented. He mentions the scrolls and inscriptions (such as we noticed in the Gospels of Luxeuil) belonging to each of the prophets and evangelists, with the names and characteristics of the principal saints in the order of the menologium or martyrology, and then goes on to direct how the subjects should be arranged on the walls and cupolas of the churches.

The Manual of Dionysius is an abstract of this wide scheme, but is still very comprehensive. The copy of it seen by Didron was one belonging to a monk of Sphigmenou named Joasaph, who was himself a painter. It was “loaded with notes added by himself and his master, which in course of time would be incorporated, according to immemorial custom, in the text.” In this way, indeed, the Manual has grown to what it is at present. A transcript of it may probably be found in every monastery belonging to the Greek Church. Another monk named Macarios, also a painter, had a fine copy of it laid open in his atelier, and his pupils read from it in turn, whilst the rest painted according to its directions. For the scheme itself we must refer the reader to the second volume of Didron's Christian Iconography, p. 193. Unfortunately the transcriber did not think it of sufficient importance or relevancy to copy the first part, as being purely technical and dealing merely with the art of painting. The scheme, therefore, only contains the part relating expressly to iconography. It is to be regretted, too, that this part also has been in some places considerably abridged, as dealing with Greek art and martyrology more copiously than, it was thought by the translator, would be interesting to English readers. There are numerous good and reliable introductory works dealing with early Christian art, besides the greater treatises to which the student who wants to pursue this line of research shall be directed later on. But there is another of these original manuals to which we must call attention, as especially dealing with the practice of monastic artists in the twelfth and following centuries.

The one to which we now refer is quite distinct from the Greek Manual which we just mentioned, and by way of contrast may be called the Latin Manual as being originally composed in that language. Moreover, as the Greek Manual formed the guide and vade mecum of all the painters of the Greek Church, so this Latin one became the indispensable monitor in all Latin foundations. Its origin was German, and said to be the compilation of a Benedictine monk who is variously spoken of as Rutgerius, Rugerius, Rotkerius, etc., and assigned by different editors and critics to either the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth centuries. Probably we shall not be far wrong in placing him about the middle of the twelfth. The treatise is known as Diversarum Artium Schedula, and the compiler of it calls himself simply Theophilus presbiter humilis, which, of course, records nothing but his personal modesty.