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.”

[34] German “angenommen.”

“Speedily these corporations spread through France, England, and Germany, where they were employed almost exclusively by the religious Orders, in building their churches and conventual buildings.”

While, therefore, the general plan and rules of construction were common to all members of the fraternity, the details were almost entirely left, under regulations, to the individual taste of certain members of each band of workmen, who, being all qualified artists, were quite capable of putting in execution, and with masterly skill, any such minutiæ of ornament as might be left to their discretion.[35] Local illuminators would thus speedily get hold of every novelty, and the page of the Psalter or Bible would become, as a French writer has explained it, a vitrail sur velin. If not indeed exclusively following the stained glass, they copied the mural decorations, and so we find the backgrounds of the miniatures, whether fitted into the initials or placed separately in framed mouldings, faithfully reproducing the imbrications, carrelages, panellings, and diapers of these mural enrichments.

[35] Governor Pownall (“Observations on the Origin and Progress of Gothic Architecture, and on the Corporation of Freemasons,” Archæologia, 1788, vol. 9, pp. 110-126) was of opinion that “the Collegium or Corporation of Freemasons, were the first formers of Gothic architecture into a regular and scientific order by applying the models and proportions of timber framework to building in stone,” and that this method “came into use and application about the close of the twelfth or commencement of the thirteenth century.”

See also Gould (R.F.), History of Freemasonry, vol. i. p. 259, note. “Without going so far as to agree with Governor Pownall that the Freemasons invented Gothic, it may be reasonably contended that without them it could not have been brought to perfection, and without Gothic they would not have stood in the peculiar and prominent position that they did, that there was mutual indebtedness, and while without Freemasons there would have been no Gothic...without Gothic the Freemasons would have formed but a very ordinary community of trades unionists.”

To select an example of Gothic illumination which shall exemplify the earliest features of the pointed style is not an easy matter, notwithstanding the number of thirteenth-century MSS. which still exist in public collections. In the National Library at Paris are several such MSS. One that decidedly marks the change from the German work hitherto in vogue is the Psalter of St. Louis (Nat. Lib., Paris., Lat. 10525), which contains nearly eighty small, delicately executed miniatures. It was completed about 1250. Its noticeable features are a vastly improved dexterity in draughtsmanship, which displays a refined certainty of touch, enabling the artist to express his intention with unhesitating freedom. The drawing thus produced in outline is filled in with flat tints of body-colour, without gradation or any attempt at brush-work shading. Whatever finishing in this respect might be thought necessary was added with the pen. Nothing could show more clearly that it is simply and frankly imitative of stained glass. As in the glass the black outline is left for definition. No colour is used on hands of faces except a slight touch of red on the cheeks and lips. The prevailing colours are rich blue and bright scarlet. Perhaps the illuminator would have been better advised had he neglected some of the harder features of this kind of work. Not considering that the limits of the glass painter did not apply to his vellum, he fettered himself unnecessarily, and instead of a picture he has only succeeded in producing a surface enamel, or a mere reticulation of surface-patterns. This very defect has by some writers been held up to admiration as the true perfection of all illumination. Its flatness was applauded because it had to be shut up in a book, and was therefore the only appropriate way of making a picture for such a purpose. But whoever would dream that because a picture, painted in due perspective and proper light and shade, was to be shut up in a book that the figures represented in relief would actually be crushed. Such reasoning is most puerile. The supposed parallel case of a carpet or hearth-rug representing groups of flowers—even if the latter ever did deceive the domestic cat—does not in the least affect the most childish conception of a picture in a book. We see it in a scene in light and shade, we enjoy and admire its reliefs, but at the same time we know it is a picture, and that it is quite flat. The two tests of knowledge never interfere with each other. To suppose they do is to suppose a case of imbecility that even a lunatic must laugh to scorn. So far, therefore, we think the illuminator mistaken in slavishly copying the limitations of the glass-painter. It is no very great knowledge of nature that is shown in these drawings. There is a good example of the method of study followed by thirteenth-century artists in the sketch-book of a French mason named Villars de Honnecourt, still kept in the National Library at Paris.[36] In this book the artist has made drawings, as he says, from the life—some are views, others drawings of objects of art; one represents a lion of the mediæval heraldic type, yet the artist assures us it is from the life. But there is no real accuracy, everything is done with reference to some canon. It is, however, quite free from the Byzantine influence, though by no means free from a certain tincture of symbolism. The nude is rarely attempted, but when it is it is certainly less ugly than in Carolingian and Romanesque. To return to the Psalter—the style of the figures is rather graceful, attitudes are gentle and modest, though the inclination of head and body are such as to suggest a sort of undulatory movement in walking that is scarcely natural. The forms are slender, and the limbs occasionally beyond the owner's control—sometimes even deformed. The feet are small and weak—now and then over-twisted. The hands more delicate than formerly, especially when open. Faces are gently oval and sometimes expressive.

[36] It has been published as the Album of V. de H., Paris, 1858.

Sometimes the “histories” are placed in initial letters, the grounds of which, when not of burnished gold, consist of imitations of mural carrelages, chequers, etc., or rich enamelled patterns imitative of engraved traceries on metal. In other cases they are placed in frame-mouldings, consisting of a bar or beading of gold supporting an inner bar of coloured and polished wood or enamel work—the polish being represented by a fine line of white along the centre. For illustrations of this precious volume the reader may refer to Labarte, Hist. des Arts industriels, album, pl. 92 (Paris, 1864).

Now that the monasteries had ceased to be the exclusive nurseries of art and literature, the masters of the different arts and crafts usually belonged to the middle classes of the towns, where at first each art or craft had its own fraternity, and as the idea of trade-association crew, the crafts most nearly related would form a guild or corporation. All who joined these corporations bound themselves to work only as the ruler of the guild permitted. Nor were outsiders allowed to compete with them in their own branches, so exclusive was the protection of the guild.

Each confraternity had its altar in some particular church, whose patron saint became the protector of the guild. And indeed the constitution of the guild included even political rights and obligations—military service among the rest, like other feudal institutions. Each town had its own special corporations, which thus led to the formation of separate schools of art; while travelling apprenticeships gave the opportunity to all of acquiring knowledge not accessible at home. Members were accustomed to travel and to attach themselves to the service of various princes, receiving appointments as “varlets” or “escripvains” or “enlumineurs,” which sometimes obliged them to resign their membership. Occasionally they became political agents and even ambassadors.

It will be remembered that, some pages back, we noticed the fact that in Western illumination generally the design of the page depended upon the initial letter, or that at least the initial was the principal object of it. In the thirteenth century, although the initial had very much diminished in size, the same principle still prevailed. The letter itself was formed of some fabulous long-necked and long-tailed animal or bird, mostly a dragon as conceived by the mediæval artist. The head framed more or less on that of the mastiff or lion, or both; the legs of a bird of prey; the body and tail of a serpent; wings of heraldic construction to suit the form of the letter. While the body of this unspeakable beast formed the body of the letter, the tail was indefinitely extended to sweep down the margin of the text and round the base of it, so as to form a border, while not unfrequently slender branches would spring from it to form coils here and there ending in a kind of flower-bud, the extremity of the tail forming a similar coil. Very soon, however, the animal form was abandoned, and the letter made simply as a decorated initial or capital. If possible, one of its limbs was made to sweep up and down the “margin” and along the bottom or top as before. Where the interior is not occupied by a “history,” we find coiled stems ending in profile leaves or buds.

At the same time the text has diminished in size, sometimes down to dimensions no greater than those of an ordinary printed book of to-day, but often beautiful and regular as the clearest printing. Such a book is the Bible written by a certain William of Devon, now in the British Museum (Roy. MS. 1 D. 1). A description of this beautiful MS. may be seen in Bibliographica, vol. i. p. 394, written by Sir E.M. Thompson. Here, though the writing is that of an Englishman, the style is completely French.

Another MS. deserving of study is a richly illuminated Bible now in the Burney Collection of our National Library (No. 3). Another, which, owing to its being recommended for study by the late John Ruskin, was once known as the Ruskin Book, is Add. MS. 17341, which contains many fine initials with border and bracket foliages similar to those of the Evangeliary of the Sainte Chapelle, now in the National Library, Paris (MS. Lat. 17326). Both the MSS. show the contemporary peculiarity of presenting Bible characters, excepting divine personages, apostles, and evangelists in ordinary local costume. Paris, of course, is the city where most, and perhaps the best, of these MSS. are preserved; but those named above, in London, are also among the finest known examples.