THE GOLDEN AGE OF ILLUMINATION

The Gothic spirit—A “Zeitgeist” not the invention of a single artist nor of a single country—The thirteenth century the beginning of the new style—Contrast between North and South, between East and West, marked in the character of artistic leaf-work—Gradual development of Gothic foliage—The bud of the thirteenth century, the leaf of the fourteenth, and the flower of the fifteenth—The Freemasons—Illumination transferred from the monastery to the lay workshop—The Psalter of St. Louis—Characteristics of French Gothic illumination—Rise of the miniature as a distinct feature—Guilds—Lay artists.

We have now reached the parting of the ways. The study of Nature is fast superseding the dogmas of the monastic code, and what some writers have characterised as the hieratic is giving way to the naturalistic treatment of art. Like the pointed architecture itself, it is an outcome of the spirit of the age. Exactly when it begins we cannot say. As in the physical sciences, our limits are necessarily somewhat arbitrary to suit our convenience in classification. We take the beginning of the thirteenth century as a convenient dividing line between old and new. We accept it as the boundary between the artistic sway of the East and South—and that of the West and North—between the lifeless fetters of prescription and the living freedom of invention. The contrast between the two is very strongly marked. The soft and curling foliages of the sunny South are for a season giving way to the hard and thorny leafage of the wintry North. It would seem as if pointed architecture began with the hard and frozen winter of its existence, and if it had been the plan or design of one individual we might have accepted this peculiarity as part of the scheme, and all that followed as a natural consequence and development. But it is curious that as a system worked out by many minds pointed architecture should thus begin. First come thorns and cusps and lanceolate forms without foliage. Then, not perfect leaves, but buds. In due time the bud opens, at first into the profile coil, and by-and-by into the full-spread leaf. Then comes the flower, and finally the fruit. After that, rottenness and decay. It is curious that this should actually take place through a course of centuries. That it should be reflected in book illumination is simply the usual order of things—the fact has been frequently observed, and as it is curious, we call attention to it. But, as we have said, the great change itself was brought about by the influence of lay artists, and chiefly by the freemasons.

Who and what the freemasons were everybody is supposed to know, but on inquiry we find very few people indeed know anything definite about them. Of course we do not refer to the friendly societies or social guilds that now bear the name, but to the mediæval builders. “Everybody knows,” says Batissier,[33] “that the study of the sciences and of literature and the practice of the various branches of art took refuge in the monasteries during the irruptions of the barbarians and the strife of international war. In those retreats, not only painting, sculpture, engraving on metals, and mosaic, but also architecture were cultivated. If the question arose about building a church, it was nearly always an ecclesiastic who furnished the plan and monks who carried out the works under his direction. The brethren in travelling from convent to convent naturally exercised a reciprocal influence over each other. We conceive, then, that the abbeys of any given Order would put in vogue the same style, and that the art would be modified under certain points of view, in the same manner in each country.”

[33] Hist. de l' Art Monumental, p. 466, Paris, 1845, I. 8°.

“It is certain, moreover, that outside the cloisters there were also troops of workmen not monastics, who laboured under the direction of the latter.”

“Masons were associated among them in the same way as other trade corporations. It was the same with these corporations in the South as with the communes—the débris of the Roman organisation; they took refuge in the Church, and had arrived at a condition of public life and independence, when order was established between the commune, the Seignory, and the Church.”

“During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries these corporations were organised into recognised fraternities having their own statutes, but there is abundant evidence of their having a much earlier existence.”

“A great number of masons were trained in Italy, and came from Lombardy, which in the tenth century even was an active centre of civilisation. Italy had its corporations of masons called maestri comaccini, enjoying exclusive privileges, who, having passed the different degrees of apprenticeship, became 'accepted'[34] masons, and had the right of exercising their profession wherever they might be. The sovereigns of different countries granted them special privileges, and the popes protected them in all Catholic countries where they might travel. Thus the lodges grew and prospered. The Greek artists who had fled from Constantinople during the various Iconoclast persecutions had got themselves enrolled in the ranks of the freemasons, and taught their fellow-masons their Byzantine methods.”