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Byzantine Manuscript Illumination

Byzantine illuminated manuscripts retain an obvious Classical influence.  The Byzantine style retained the stiff standardization of design. According to Medieval historian" It is noticeable in these Byzantine pictures that while the figure-painting is often really excellent, the design skilful, and the pose natural, the landscape, trees, etc., are quite symbolic and fanciful. The painters seem to have been utterly ignorant of perspective. Buildings, too, without any regard to relative proportion, are colored merely as parts of a colour scheme. They are pink, pale green, yellow, violet, blue, just to please the eye. That the painter had a system of colour-harmony is plain, but he paid no regard to the facts of city life, unless, indeed, it was the practice of the medieval Byzantines to paint the outside of their houses in this truly brilliant style. "

One of the most intriguing manuscripts in which this classical influence may be seen is  a work on Botany, by Byzantine illuminator Dioscorides, written around 400 A. D. The miniature paintings in this manuscript have many of the characteristics of earlier Roman work. Manuscript Illumination started around the first century AD and is related to Egyptian papyrology (the art of ancient writing and painting on papyrus). The pages of the books were made out of  goat or sheep skins - called parchment or vellum. According to Medieval historian, Julia De Wolf Addison, "The pigments used in Byzantine manuscripts are glossy, a great deal of ultramarine being used. The high lights are usually of gold, applied in sharp glittering lines, and lighting up the picture with very decorative effect. In large wall mosaics the same characteristics may be noted, and it is often suggested that these gold lines may have originated in an attempt to imitate cloisonné enamel, in which the fine gold line separates the different colored spaces one from another. This theory is quite plausible, as cloisonné was made by the Byzantine goldsmiths."

The manuscripts were produced in monastic centers, called scriptoriums,  in the British Isles during the seventh and eighth centuries.  The early Christian artists favored morose and emaciated figures, hollowed cheeks and deep-set eyes, wide and feverish, filled with love for Christ.  The miniature painting of the Irish, Gallic, and German monks was a melding together of painting and calligraphy. From the scrolls and flourishes purely calligraphic human forms are constructed.  These early depictions were severe as judges  with pitiless dignity, they stare from the pages like threatening tables of law, demanding submission, fear, and obedience, but according neither mercy, comfort, not redemption.


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