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GREEK AND ROMAN ILLUMINATION

The first miniature painter—The Vatican Vergils—Methods of painting—Origin of Christian art—The Vienna Genesis—The Dioscorides—The Byzantine Revival.

It has been already stated that the earliest recorded miniature painter was a lady named Lala of Cyzicus in the days of Augustus Cæsar, days when Cyzicus was to Rome what Brussels is to Paris, or Brighton to London. All her work, as far as we know, has perished. It was portraiture on ivory, probably much the same as we see in the miniature portraiture of the present day.

But this was not illumination. The kind of painting employed in the two Vatican Vergils was, however, something approaching it. These two precious volumes contain relics of Pagan art, but it is the very art which was the basis and prototype of so-called Christian art of those earliest examples found in the catacombs and in the first liturgical books of Christian times.

The more ancient of the two Vergils referred to, No. 3225, which Labarte (2nd ed., ii. 158) thinks to be a century older than the other, Sir M.D. Wyatt considered as containing “some of the best and most interesting specimens of ancient painting which have come down to us. The design is free and the colours applied with good effect, the whole presenting classical art in the period of decline, but before its final debasement.” Whereas in the second MS., No. 3867, the style, though still classical, is greatly debased, and probably, in addition to this, by no means among the best work of its time. It is described as rough, inaccurate, and harsh. The method is of the kind called gouache, i.e. the colours are applied thickly in successive couches or layers, probably by means of white of egg diluted with fig-tree sap, and finished in the high lights with touches of gold (Palæograph. Soc., pl. 114, 117). This finishing with touches of gold brings the work within the range of illumination. There is, indeed, wanting the additional ornamentation of the initial letter which would bring it fully into the class of mediæval work; but, such as it is, it may fairly claim to be suggestive of the future art. Indeed, certain points in the MS. 3225—viz. that Zeus is always red and Venus fair, that certain costumes and colours of drapery are specially appropriated—would lead to the supposition that even then there existed a code of rules like those of the Byzantine Guide, and that therefore the art owed its origin to the Greeks.

Between this MS. and the first known Christian book work there may have been many that have now perished, and which, had they remained, would have marked the transition more gradually. But even as they stand there is no appreciable difference between the earliest monuments of Christian art and those of the period which preceded them. Nor shall we find any break, any distinct start on new principles. It is one continuous series of processes—the gradual change of methods growing out of experience alone—not owing to any change of religion or the adoption of a new set of theological opinions. Of course we shall find that for a very long time the preponderance of illuminated MSS. will be towards liturgical works; and we shall also find that where the contents of the MS. are the same the subjects taken for illustration are also selected according to some fixed and well-known set of rules. We shall see the explanation of this by-and-by.

The first example of a Christian illuminated MS. is one containing portions of the Book of Genesis in Greek preserved in the Imperial Library at Vienna. It is a mere fragment, only twenty-six leaves of purple vellum—that is, bearing the imperial stain—yet it contains eighty-eight pictures. We call them miniatures, but we must remember that by “miniator” a Roman bookseller would not understand what we call a miniaturist; and, as we have said, the word “illuminator” was not then known.

This Vienna Genesis is not introduced among illuminated books, therefore, because of its miniatures—pictures we prefer to call them—but because the text is nearly all written in gold and silver letters. The pictures, according to the Greek manner, are placed in little square frames. They were executed, no doubt, by a professional painter, not without technical skill and not hampered by monastic restrictions. The symbolism which underlies all early art is here shown in the allegorical figures (such as we shall meet with again in later Byzantine work), which are introduced to interpret the scene. We see the same thing in the catacombs. Being a relic of great importance, this Genesis codex has been often described and examples given of its pictures. Of course, in a little manual like the present we cannot pretend to exhibit the literature of our subject. We can scarcely do more than refer the reader to a single source. In this case perhaps we cannot do better than send the inquirer to the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington.

If we select another MS. of this early period it is the one which may be said to be the oldest existing MS. in which the ornamentation is worthy of as much notice as the pictures. We refer to the Collection of Treatises by Greek physicians on plants, fishing, the chase, and kindred matters in the same library as the Genesis fragment. It goes under the name of “Dioscorides,” who was one of the authors, and dates from the beginning of the sixth century. The Genesis is a century older. Engravings from the Dioscorides are given in Labarte's Arts industriels, etc., pl. 78, and in Louandre's Arts somptuaires, etc., i., pl. 2, 3.

Enough has been said on these earlier centuries to show quite clearly the character of the art known as Early Christian. It is simply a continuation of such art as had existed from classical times, and had, in fact, passed from the Greeks, who were artists, to the Romans, who were rarely better than imitators. It is carried on to the period when it again is nourished by Greek ideas in the Later Empire, and once more attains distinction in the splendid revival of art under the Emperor Justinian.

NOTE.—Julius Capitolinus, in his Life of the exquisite Emperor Maximin, junior, mentions that the emperor's mother[8] made him a present of a copy of the poems of Homer, written in golden letters on purple[9] vellum. This is the earliest recorded instance of such a book in Christian times. Its date would be about 235 A.D.

[8] Quædam parens sua.

[9] Purpureos libros.