Today a painting on panel or a miniature on parchment in a manuscript is considered a completely separate form of art. But in the 15th century, things were different. What exactly was the relationship between painting and the art of miniatures at that time?
The Flemish Primitives: a revolution
At the end of the 15th century, the Flemish Primitives brought about a remarkable pictorial revolution in Western painting. Characteristic of their work is the unprecedented attention to realism and the use of scenes from everyday life. The veiled symbolism, sublime colour nuances and attention to the faithful reproduction of perspective and landscapes are very much present in their work.
The oil painting technique used by the Flemish Primitives brought with it a whole range of new technical possibilities. The changes that this technique caused did not go unnoticed in the artistic milieu of the 15th century.
Painters, illuminators and sculptors did not work in isolation in the 15th century. There was quite some interaction between artists of the various disciplines.
Although the evolution towards more realism in the art of illumination had been going on for some time, the art of the Flemish Primitives soon left its mark on the work of miniaturists. The influence of the Flemish Primitive Jan van Eyck, for example, is so great that within the art of miniatures we speak of ‘pre-Eyckian miniatures’ and ‘Eyckian miniatures’.
The turning point is the polyptych with the ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, the masterpiece that the Van Eyck brothers completed in 1432. The pre-Eyckian miniature art refers to the production of illuminated manuscripts in the Southern Netherlands before the realisation of this work. In other words, pre-Eyckian miniatures precede the pictorial revolution of Flemish miniatures.
Pictural revolution in the book
During the last three decades of the 15th century, the pictorial revolution brought about by the Flemish Primitives penetrates into the book. Miniaturists copied the use of light, colour, texture and space of the Flemish Primitives in their work.
Of course, the change in style is not only due to the exchange between artists from different disciplines. It is also influenced by artists who are themselves active in several disciplines. In those days, it was quite normal for a panel painter to also work as an illuminator. Simon Marmion, for example, is known as the ‘prince of illuminators’, but he painted not only with tempera on parchment, but also with oil on panel.
From panel to book: allusions to Van Eyck
The miniature below, which you can now admire in the KBR museum, comes from the Histoire de Charles Martel. The manuscript was copied around 1465 by David Aubert, commissioned by Philip the Good. His son Charles the Bold had the manuscript illuminated by Loyset Liédet.
The miniature shows a figure, probably Charles the Bold, hiding behind a column and surprising David Aubert in his scriptorium. Although the duke’s motto ‘Je lay emprins’ (I have dared) appears in white letters on the wall in the background, there is very little resemblance between the duke and his image in this miniature.
Anyone who is familiar with the painting ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ by Van Eyck will undoubtedly think of it when they see this miniature. Indeed, Liédet makes several allusions to this painting: the inscription on the wall, the convex mirror with two silhouettes, the rosary, the chandelier, the dog, the oranges and the brush.
Liédet was thus clearly familiar with the work of Van Eyck and the veiled symbolism that the artist used in his paintings.
From book to panel: borrowed compositions
The influence of panel painters on illuminators was not a one-way street. The work of miniaturists in turn also influenced the art of artists who painted on panel. Gerard David, for example, who is primarily known for his painting, regularly found inspiration in late-medieval manuscript illumination. His paintings show that he knew the work of the most important miniaturists.
The artist regularly borrowed compositions and motifs from the art of miniatures, especially for unusual subjects that occur more often in miniatures than in panel paintings. Miniaturists, after all, dealt with a wider variety of subjects: secular themes, but also religious subjects and scenes from the Old Testament.
In the painting ‘The Judgement of Cambyses’, for example, Gerard David paints a scene where the corrupt judge Sisamnes is flayed. The composition is probably based on a copy of or the design for Loyset Liédet’s miniature with the same subject in the manuscript La Sale.
Liédet’s rendering of the story of Cambyses is not the oldest, but it is one of the first to depict the scene in such a gruesome manner. David reproduces several elements, such as the knife that the executioner holds between his teeth and the large crowd that witnesses the bloody scene.
The manuscript La Sale will be on display at the KBR museum from October 2021.
Who is following who: the painter or the miniaturist?
It is not always clear who came first: the painter or the miniaturist. Hieronymus Bosch is said to have drawn inspiration from the work of miniaturists. Although the iconography and the use of colour from his work can also be recognised in late-medieval illumination, it is difficult to know whether the artist really used the miniatures as a source of inspiration.
Bosch’s work is especially reminiscent of the illuminations by Simon Marmion, an artist who, as mentioned, worked as a panel and miniature painter. He illuminated many manuscripts commissioned by the Burgundian court.
When we compare Adam and Eve in Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ with Marmion’s ‘The Earthly Paradise’ from Les Sept Ages du Monde, it is striking that their spindly bodies and light skin show remarkable similarities.
Although Bosch’s connections to the Burgundian court make it plausible that he had knowledge of the ducal library, we cannot say with certainty that Marmion’s miniatures served as a model for his paintings on panel. It is also possible that Bosch knew Marmion’s work from his paintings.
It is not always clear who came up with a design first, but one thing is certain: the exchanges between the artists of the 15th century were numerous and varied. The permeability of the inspirations, between models and reinterpretations, no doubt continues to amaze us, whether painted on panel or parchment…
Would you like to see the interaction between the 15th century art forms with your own eyes? Then visit the KBR museum and search for the differences between paintings and miniatures.Discover the KBR museum Buy tickets
Ainsworth, Maryan W., Early Netherlandisch Painting at the Crossroads: A Critical Look at Current Methodologies. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001.
Bousmanne, Bernard and Thierry Delcourt, Vlaamse miniaturen 1404-1482. Leuven: Davidsfonds, 2011.
Bousmanne, Bernard and Elena Savini, The Library of the Dukes of Burgundy. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020.
Gibson, Walter S., Hieronymus Bosch. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.
Kren, Thomas and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003.
Morrison, Elizabeth and Thomas Kren, Flemish Manuscript Painting in Context: Recent Research. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
Van der Velden, Hugo. “Cambyses for Example: The Origins and Function of an exemplum iustitiae in Netherlandish Art of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 23, 1 (1995): 5-62.