FRENCH ILLUMINATION FROM THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY TO THE RENAISSANCE

Ivy-leaf and chequered backgrounds—Occasional introduction of plain burnished gold—Reign of Charles VI. of France—The Dukes of Orleans, Berry, and Burgundy; their prodigality and fine taste for MSS.—Christine de Pisan and her works—Description of her “Mutation of Fortune” in the Paris Library—The “Roman de la Rose” and “Cité des Dames”—Details of the French style of illumination—Burgundian MSS., Harl. 4431—Roy. 15 E. 6—The Talbot Romances—Gradual approach to Flemish on the one hand and Italian on the other.

In addition to the expanding ivy leaf which forms the chief feature of fourteenth-century book-ornament, we find the miniaturist as a further improvement adding delicate colour in the faces. Also that instead of the invariable lozenging or diapering of the background he occasionally makes a background of plain burnished gold. And as if to prove that his predecessors were really hampered with the restrictions imposed by their imitations of painted glass, he begins to try his best to paint up his miniatures into real pictures with high lights on draperies and shading upon the folds. A certain amount of flatness, however, still remains, but it scarcely seems to have been the intention or aim of the painter. There is a similar flatness in the work of all the early schools of painting, which had no reference whatever to the destination of the picture. See, for instance, the Origny Treasure Book in the Print Room at Berlin (MS. 38), and the Life of St. Denis in the National Library at Paris (Nos. 2090-2), both MSS. dating somewhere about 1315. The drapery shading in the latter MS. is no longer the work of the pen, but brush-work in proper colour. The Westreenen Missal in the Museum at the Hague, which dates about 1365, though not a French MS., is an example of the fact that by the middle of the century the tradition of penwork outline and flat-colouring had become pretty nearly obsolete.

The reign of the afflicted Charles VI. of France, disastrous in the extreme to the material welfare of his own subjects, full of untold misery to the poor, and of oppression to the growing community of artisans and traders, was nevertheless, as regards literature and the arts, a period of progress and even splendour. The King's incapacity, by affording his uncles and brothers opportunities for fingering the revenues during the self-appointed and irresponsible regencies, enabled them to gratify their magnificent tastes in the purchasing of costly furniture and the ordering of splendid books. Louis of Orleans, usually credited with the worst of this prodigality, was by no means singular in his conduct. His uncle, the Duke of Berry, while daily earning the execrations of the tax-payers by his unscrupulous employment of the public money, was constantly enriching his library, and both he and his brothers and nephews were in the habit of sending priceless volumes, illuminated by the best artists, as wedding and birthday gifts, to each other, or their wives or acquaintances. We talk, and justly, of the fine taste and noble love of literature of Jean de Berry. His contemporaries, at least those beneath his own rank, looked upon him as a tyrant and plunderer. His disastrous administration of Languedoc was described as “one long fête where the excess of expenditure was rivalled only by the excess of scandal.” If the marmousets could have hanged him they would. In default they hanged his treasurer.

All this maladministration was very wrong, but we cannot afford to burn the MSS. in consequence, for the Bible, the “Grandes Heures,” and other books once possessed by the wicked Duke, are among the most precious relics of any age. Add to them the beautiful volumes of poetry and romance composing the contemporary literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and we have treasures that we dare not relinquish.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century pure French illumination was losing its own characteristics and acquiring others. In the North, in Flanders and Brabant, Franche-Comté and the Burgundian Dukedom generally, it was becoming that peculiar kind of French which had received the name of Burgundian. It can scarcely be said to be Flemish enough to rank as Netherlandish, yet neither can it stand side by side with “French of Paris.”