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.

It was at first attributed to Tuotilo of St. Gallen. This opinion was put forward by Lessing, but it had no foundation whatever beyond the fact of Tuotilo's well-known versatility.[24] Besides, Tuotilo lived in the ninth century. But really the question of attributions does not concern us here. It matters little who he was outside the Treatise, and certainly we shall not discuss the question further. It is with the Treatise that we are concerned. We shall simply call the author Theophilus, and his work the Compendium. Let us turn to it at once.

[24] Tuotilo was renowned throughout all Germany as painter, architect, preacher, professor, musician, calligrapher, Latinist, Hellenist, sculptor, and astronomer.

The Compendium, which is thus known to contain the working methods of all the monastic illuminators, mosaicists, glass painters, enamellers, and so forth, throughout Germany, Lombardy, and France, consists of three books, containing altogether one hundred and ninety-five chapters of definite and special instructions in artistic matters. Book I., comprising forty chapters, treats of the preparation, mixture, and use of colours for wall-painting, panel, and parchment, i.e. for the decoration of churches, furniture, and books. It contains some most curious and valuable instructions for the employment of gold, silver, and other metals in the decoration of MSS.; how it should be applied; whether in leaf or as an ink; how raised and burnished, down to the minutest details of practice; how colours are to be tempered (i.e.mixed); what media or temperings are best for each colour, according to the surface to which it is to be applied. Such is the Compendium. We need not, therefore, wonder at its popularity and the estimation in which it was held.

Thirty-one chapters on glass, glass painting, enamelling, etc., form a second book, and the third and last book contains some hundred and twenty-four chapters on gold and silver work—the art of the goldsmith—in cups, chalices, vases, candelabra, shrines, and so on. It is the first book that is of most interest to us, and had we space we would have liked to quote from its pages. But as it is we can only refer the reader to the work itself. It is to be met with in various forms and editions. First, we recommend the English translation by Robert Hendrie. The oldest MS. of the work is one of the twelfth century in the Library at Wolfenbüttel. The next is in the Imperial Library at Vienna. Fragments of other copies exist in several other public libraries, but the completest copy known is that in the Harl.[25] Collection of the British Museum used by Hendrie as the basis of his translation (8°, 1847).

[25] 1 Harl. MS. 3915.

It was, as we have said, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries especially that the great abbeys were founded. And it cannot be too clearly stated that the principal abbatial churches—those most splendid monuments of architecture whose structure and dimensions are still the admiration of the most cultured critics, and in which all the rules of art were so marvellously applied—were the work of simple monks. The great Church of St. Benignus at Dijon (so often spoken of by writers on Burgundian art) was built in 1001, under Abbat William, assisted by a young monk named Hunaldus. The period between 1031 and 1060 saw the creation of the grand abbatial Church of St. Remi at Reims. In the words of the Comte de Montalembert: “From the very beginning of the Monastic Orders St. Benedict had provided in his Rule that there should be artists in the monasteries. He had imposed on the exercise of their art only one condition—humility.” Hence it is that all we know of the author of the Compendium from himself is “humilis presbiter Theophilus.” For the same reason Tuotilo and Folchard and Sintramn and the rest are never anxious to put their names upon their work. For the same reason the occurrence of an artist's name in a monastic MS. is quite exceptional and unexpected. The foresight of St. Benedict “was accomplished and his law faithfully fulfilled.” The Benedictine monasteries soon possessed not only libraries but ateliers, where architecture, painting, mosaic, sculpture, metal-chasing, calligraphy, ivory carving, gem-setting, book-binding, and all the branches of ornamentation were studied and practised with equal care and success, without interfering in the least with the exact and austere discipline of the foundation. The teaching of these various arts formed an essential part of monastic education. “The greatest and most saintly abbeys were precisely those most renowned for their zeal in the culture of Art. St. Gallen in Germany, Monte Cassino in Italy, Cluny in France, were for centuries the mother-cities of Christian Art.” And after the establishment of the reformed colony at Citeaux, the Cistercian Order became the one above all others which has left the most perfect edifices, and if the Cistercian illumination may not claim the splendour of some contemporary examples, it often excels them in soundness of design and severe correctness of execution.

In saying that all this kind of work was executed by monks, we are speaking literally. The monks were not only the architects, but also the masons, and even the hodmen of their edifices. Nor were the superiors in this respect different from their humble followers. Whilst ordinary monks were often the architects-in-chief of the constructions, the abbats voluntarily accepted the rôle of labourers. During the building of the Abbey of Bee, in 1033, the founder and first abbat, grand-seigneur though he was, worked as a common mason's labourer, carrying on his back the lime, sand, and stones necessary for the builder. This was Herluin. Another Norman noble, Hugh, Abbat of Selby in Yorkshire, when, in 1096, he rebuilt in stone the whole of that important monastery, putting on the labourer's blouse, mixed with the other masons and shared their labours. Monks, illustrious by birth, distinguished themselves by sharing the most menial occupations. It is related of Roger de Warenne that when he retired to Evroul, he took up quite a serious rôle of this kind in cleaning the shoes of the brethren, and performing other offices which a mere cottager would have probably considered degrading.

Occasionally in our school histories we come across the mention of a man like Dunstan, of whom it is related as a wonderful thing that he was at the same time a metal worker, architect, and calligrapher; but monastic biographies abound in such instances. We have already quoted several. “The same man was frequently,” says Montalembert, “architect, goldsmith, bell-founder, miniaturist, musician, calligrapher, organ builder, without ceasing to be theologian, preacher, litterateur, sometimes even bishop, or intimate counsellor of princes”.[26]

[26] “L'Art et les Moines,” Ann. Archéologiques, t. vi. p. 121, etc.