Picasso, Michelangelo, and the Limbourg Brothers

If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know that in the Middle Ages books were handwritten and individually illustrated. A lot of time and money went into those babies. Indeed, manuscript illustrations are no less works of art than Picasso’s paintings or Michelangelo’s sculptures. I know I write about it a lot, but the Très Riches Heures is just one example of a manuscript that truly exemplifies (Late) Medieval art at its finest. In addition to being lavishly illustrated with copious amounts of lapis lazuli, gold leaf, and all that other stupidly expensive stuff, the Très Riches Heures also features illustrations that reveal Medieval attitudes toward social class, the feudal system, and life in general.

Medieval manuscript illustrations can, then, reveal a lot about the time in which they were made: religious beliefs and practices, artistic styles, social customs… Illustrators (also called illuminators, although the two terms are not synonymous) included everything from the mundane to the fantastic in their books. There are even some instances in which a book’s illustrations have absolutely nothing to do with its text. It kind of seems like the illustrator was just doodling, wasting time so that he could just mark some extra hours on his timesheet. For example, check out this beautiful illustration from a 12th-century book of Canon law called Concordia discordantium canonum:

Look at that picture. Just look at it. There is no way that is not a penis.

That man is riding a fuzzy green rabbitlike penis.

Above is just one example of a pretty fantastic illustration. However, I think that the mundane drawings – the ones that depict the everyday – are some of the most important pieces of art we have from the Middle Ages, as they tell us a lot about Medieval life. I started watching Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives on YouTube this week. Here’s a link to the first episode. You can learn all about peasants!

Yes, that’s the kind of television show I like to watch.

What’s really neat about this show is its heavy dependence on manuscript art. If you skip to just about any part of that YouTube video, you’ll see that all of the show’s “cartoons” are actually images taken from Medieval manuscripts, and then animated using computer software. Instead of using live actors to tell its story, Medieval Lives instead uses primary materials because, really, what could better represent the Middle Ages than the art of the people who lived during that time?

Much of the greatest and most accessible Medieval art we have today comes from manuscripts. This is why it’s so important that we work to save what we have. Through ongoing digitization projects, codicologists strive to make manuscript illustrations more widely accessible to the general public so that everyone can enjoy them, and can learn all about Medieval life.

Christmas Countdown: 10 More Sleeps!


Illustrations to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, object 6, 1809

William Blake, easily one of the best artists of the Romantic period, was commissioned by Thomas Butts to produce a “Nativity Ode” that illustrated John Milton‘s poem, On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. If you haven’t already read the poem, do so. Stop what you’re doing right now and read it. Even if you’re not Christian, read it. It’s beautiful.

But see the Virgin blest,
Hath laid her Babe to rest.
Time is our tedious Song should here have ending,
Heav’ns youngest-teemed Star
Hath fixt her polisht Car,
Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending.
And all about the Courtly Stable,
Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.

Blake used pen and watercolour over pencil for the smooth, pastel look you see in the image above.

Something I love about this picture is how none of the angels are looking at Baby Jesus. Instead, they look away, with their backs turned to Him. They’re sitting serviceable, as Milton writes, protecting the newborn. As you can see if you look through my other Christmas Countdown pictures, this stance is really unusual for Nativity scenes. Milton and Blake offer a new perspective: instead of pushing each other to get a chance to see the baby, everyone calmly takes his position outside of the stable. Swords drawn, the angels are ready to prevent anyone from wrecking this precious moment.

If you have a couple of minutes, check out some of William Blake’s other illustrations. My personal favourites are those from Dante’s Divine Comedy, although there’s so much to discover on the Digital Blake Archive. You can also read Blake’s own poetry here.