HistoArt Blog - English


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The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. Pontiff rejects Joaquin's offering, from a XV c. manuscript. National Library of France S. LAT91. Commons.

The Art of Miniature painting has its roots with the illustrations of the Medieval illuminated Manuscripts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.





Miniature portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, 8.3 x 5.7 cm,

by Francois Clouet.

Royal collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

RCIN401229. Commons.

The illuminated manuscripts were those which included borders, capital letters, ornaments and illustrations, and the decoration included not only pure luminous colours but also gold and sometimes silver, given the illustration a special brightness, and the feeling that the page was illuminated. (some examples from the fifteen century still endure).






Anne Duchess of Bedford praying in front of St. Anne,

British Library.Add-MS 18850f257v.


Until the seventeen century these illustrations in England were call LIMNING, the word Limn originate from the ancient Latin word LUMINARE, which means to illuminate, and  therefore a LIMNER was a manuscript illuminator.




The monk Jean Mielot at work in his medieval escriptorium, 15th century.

Brussels Royal Library. Commons. 

Furthermore, in England the artists that later used to paint the exquisite small portraits were also called LIMNERS, in fact they used a very similar technique as the one used for the illustrated manuscripts, since in the seventeen century these small portrait paintings were known as Miniatures, and the artists that executed them, were known as Miniaturists.





Miniature portrait of an unidentified man, 6x4.8cm, by Nicholas Hilliard.

c.1572.V&A Museum. No P-1-1942. Commons.

MINIUM is a Latin name of Iberian origin, also known in Spain as Minio or Azarcón,(oxide of red lead) and Cinnabar,(red sulphide of mercury). Its definition is red lead or vermilion: is a pigment component of the red ink that was used to paint the capital and illustrations of this ancient books. 




The Wedding of Henry VI and Margaret D'Anjou. Vigils of King Charles VII, Paris, France. XV century, author Martial d'Auvergne.


Later on, more opaque colours were introduced to paint the ornate capital letters such as blue and green etc. The large initials with images inside the letter, were known as "historiated initials"


The very rich Hours of the Duke of Berry, miniature showing Jean of France, Duke of Berry praying in front of the Virgin and Infant.


The word Miniature derives from Minium, a lead oxide component of red ink used in the ancient manuscripts, (as previously mentioned). The verb is MINIARE that means to paint with minium. MINIATUS means painted in minium and its diminutive MINIATULUS means painted softly in minium.







 Etienne Chevalier Book of Hours. "Visitation". Miniature of Jean Fouquet.

Collection Conde Museum. Commons.




About the seventeen century there was a change in the interpretation of the word MINIATURE denoting from then on, very small paintings and objects, it is not certain if this was caused by confusion with some other similar Latin word such as MINIMUN (which means the smallest) or perhaps another derivative of this word. Therefore the word miniature in the glossary of Art, denoted from then on a very small work, carefully and exquisitely executed with great detail, but it does not denote the technique or the medium.






Miniature portrait of an Unknown Youth, 5x4.1cm,

painted by Nicholas Hilliard, c 1585-1590'

Collection V&A Museum, P-4&A 1974. Commons.

 The word MINIUM potentially originated from a river called in old times  MINIUS located in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. This area was known  during the times of the Roman domination as" The Gallaecia" province of Hispania. This river, which runs across  the autonomic community of Galicia and is known in our day as the "Miño"  in Spain, and "Minho"  in Portugal,  is the largest river en Galicia, and  is 340 kilometres long , 76 of which, towards the end of its course, form the border between Spain and Portugal. 







 KIngdom of Galicia, Emperor Maximiliano with Galician banner, c.1515. Commons.




Minium  was the Latin name to denote cinnabar, red lead or vermilion( some variations are Minio, Minia, "Minius"Mineo), therefore this Spanish river called MINIUS in the past,  which had a reputation of having red hues in its waters, was essentially the RED RIVER.






Alfonso IX King of Galicia and Leon, Spain, 13th c. medieval miniature. Commons.

In some old mines in a valley near this river,  where the Romans  used to extract gold and silver, were found, in between the volcanic rocks and warm springs this red pigment which they used for the decoration of the roman temples, painting huge murals, panels and large bibles. 








Paris Psalter, (10th century). The coronation of David , King of Israel. France National Library. Commons,

 Likewise this was the pigment used in the middle age for the composition of these small awe-inspiring manuscripts. CINNABAR or vermilion was already known in the third century B.C. 







 Book of Hours of Charles VIII, "Crucifixion", author Maitre de Jacques de Besancon. National Library of Spain, Madrid. Commons.

Spain had large and important deposits of Cinnabar/Minium, the one in  Almaden, Ciudad Real, being one of the most important in the world. It was closed in 2002 due to the prohibition of mercury mining in Europe. In the year 2006, this mine was opened to the public and one can visit the first level, 50 metres underground.







Miniature of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the Catholic Monarchs, Spain.Commons.

The illustration of manuscripts started in ancient Egypt towards the year 2000 BC, they used papyrus  as a base,  due to its flexibility some of the manuscript were rolled as scroll, in the fourth century parchment replaced the papyrus .







Book of Hours of Charles VIII, Miniature of "Matthew". Collection National Library of Spain, Madrid. Commons.

In the beginning these ancient manuscripts were bibles and religious book,  executed mostly by monks in the monasteries, and were sources of wisdom, tradition and enlightenment. To make the text more comprehensive they used illustrations. All the work of a manuscript was done by the same person , who usually dedicated all his life to this activity.





The monk Jean Mielot working in his Medieval scriptorium, he was a scribe, author,translator and manuscript illuminator. Brussels, 15th c. Royal Library of Brussels. Commons 

The monks used to copy the manuscripts hoping to keep alive the wisdom of the ancient world, and also to diffuse the Gospel. They used prepared goose feathers quill, (or from other large birds) for  writing. 







Mark the Evangelist. miniature from The Great Hours of Anne of Brittany. Queen consort of France. National Library of France. Commons.

The production of these books was a very laborious process, a work of great discipline and precision. The monks would have painful eyes, as they would work under poor light, for sure near a window, although the windows  were usually small, and the walls very thick to try to keep the cold monasteries a little bit warmer. They may have used oil lamps at night,  probably also suffered  from pain in the back and other parts of the body  due to the position in which they worked daily, and during many hours. 







Edwine Psalter, 12th century illustration representing the monk Edwine, a scribe at work. Canterbury, England. Commons.

The earth colours used up to the tenth century such as sepia, red, and ochre, started changing, specially from the twelve to the fifteens century, with the use of more varied colours , stronger, cleaner and more harmonious, giving more contrast to the composition and a better and more precise representation to the figure and face of the subjects.





Miniatura of Kink James II of Mallorca, representing a Medieval Homage. Archives Departmental of Perpignan, 1B31. Commons.




The Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, presiding an act in      "Las Cortes"  (Spanish Parliament) next to them their son John,Prince of Asturias. Commons

There was in the monasteries in the fourteens century a communal room call ESCRIPTORIUM used exclusively by the SCRIBES, they were  the people  dedicated to write the text of these MANUSCRIPTS , a word  that also derives from the Latin, "MANU- SCRIPTUS" a combination of two words meaning written by hand, there was also the COPYIST , their task was to copy the books. 








Miniature depicting the monk Vincent of Beauvais, working in his medieval scriptorium. British Library. Commons.

In another room  would  probably work the LIMNERS or illuminators, they used to draw and paint the illustrations, the MINIATORS experts in applying the minium or colour red to the very elaborated capital letters, and the RUBRICATOR who used to insert the rubric and margin.







French Book of Hours, Paris c. 1410, Miniature of the Annunciation with the Start of Matins in the little Office. Society of Antiquaries of London. Commons.

Likewise there were the bookbinders,  and also the ARMARIAN ,who was the monk librarian that supervised the process of copying  and amongst other things he  repaired and catalogued the manuscripts, also he kept the account of the lent and returned  books.







Homage of Edward I of England to the king of France Philip IV, as Edward was Duke of Aquitaine, he was a vassal to the French King. 15th century miniature. Commons 

The NOTARII for the legal documents and of course the helpers and apprentices of this unique and specialist art, most probably apart from religion,  the art of the illuminated manuscripts could also be learned in the  monastic schools , universities were also created concretely the University of Paris was created in the thirteen century.     








Saint Matthew the Evangelist F.87, miniature

from the Book of the Great Hours of Anne of Brittany, author John Bourdichon. France National Library. Commons.

 Many workshops  flourished from the thirteen century onwards and by the fourteen  century there was already professional groups  that used to do this works together in ateliers, the work was then shared.





Two scribes; a lay person and a monk sharing the work in a medieval scriptorium. Wiesbaden Deutches Museum. Commons







14th century painters. First folio of the Golden Bull of Charles IV, WGA, circa 1400.Collection Austrian National Library. Web Gallery of Art. Commons.

The artists used to prepare the colour themselves but after the twelve   century they could find in shops either the pigments already prepared,  or the basic components, ground Cinnabar was more expensive than red lead. Their brushes were made of squirrel or beaver hair. 







Psalter The Bedford Hours,  illumination of the Duke of Bedford praying to Saint George. British Library Add MS 18850. Commons.

Towards the end of the fourteen century women used to work on these manuscripts, especially in Paris. Stood out Christine de Pizan, 1368-1430, Italian born French author, defender of woman's rights, political thinker in medieval France, amongst other royal patronages she was court writer during the kingdom of Charles VI.





Christine de Pizan. Medieval prolific writer, poet and Manuscript illuminator,  portrayed in this miniature introducing her new book, to a group of people, in her Paris scriptorium. Commons.

The themes of these books were then more varied , and in the fifteen century these manuscripts were not only for the church , although it owned  an extended library, but they were also accessible to rich and noble people  who had the resources  to buy them.





"The Book of the Queen". Christine de Pizan, offering her book    to the Queen Isabeau of Bavaria.

  The British Library. Commons

The commissions were very specific with lots of detail, and some portraits of important people were incorporated into these manuscripts, although at the time , they were produced with little precision, more like representations, as the people did not sit for the artist.






Miniature of a Wealthy Man, by Jean Bourdichon. Ecole National Superieur de Beaux Arts, Paris. Web Gallery of Art. Commons.

Some of these artisans had the privilege to be affiliated to the Royal Court .




Miniature of the author  John Talbot with his dog, presenting his book as a gift to Margaret D'Anjou and Henry VI. (15th century). Digitised image from Royal MS 15 E vi, 12v, British Library. Commons.

At the time, well off people  had a small personal collections of manuscripts, perhaps twenty o thirty  books more or less.






Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany by the Master Jean Bourdichon.

Miniature depicting The Duchesse Anne in prayer, 16th century. Latin 9474, folio:2v3 France National Library. Commons.

Philip II the Bold Duke of Burgundy  had a very extensive personal library of about six hundred  manuscripts, this was probably the largest collection of his time. 




Roger van der Weyden, presentation of his book "Chroniques de Hainault" to Philip the Good, circa 1447. Royal Library of Belgium. Commons

These marvellous books were executed with parchment  or in vellum, prepared from goat or sheep skin, or from calf skin. 







Charles VIII Book of Hours-BNE Vitr 24-1

Miniature of the "Annunciation of the shepherds".        Spanish Digital Library. Commons

In 1440 with the invention of printing these manuscripts were in competition, the transition started then from the hand  written books  to the printed books, although well- to- do- people and collectors preferred and went on commissioning these exquisite manuscripts for quite a while. Also this artists  went on working with documents, coat of arms  etc. 



Queen Claude of France Prayer Book. 

Artist Master of Claude of France.

Dated 1517, Google Art Project jpg. Collection The Morgan Library and Museum.swEzrQ63Y1tig at Google Cultural Institute. Commons.

There exist some printed books that are ornate and decorated by hand. The text was first printed, keeping some blank space on the side of the page,  for the artists to then include some hand decoration. The Initial letters and  heading,  were also painted in red.






Henry V of England, depicted in this miniature as a young Prince of Wales, receiving or presenting a book, round 1411-1413. British Library, London. Commons.



Towards 1460 the printing books become more popular because of being less pricy, and also they were faster to produce, on the contrary it took many months to produce each one of these marvellous small manuscripts, they were really priceless! 



The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry.

"Traditional Cavalcade of the 1st of May".

Authors, the Limbourg brothers,1402-1416.







The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry.

Engagement scene, exchanging rings in the presence of witness. Authors  the Limbourg brothers, 1402- 1416.


 Unfortunately many of these artisans needed to find another way of earning their living and the illuminator became an artist painting portraits or pictures independent of the manuscripts.





Miniature portrait of Jane Small (formerly Pemberton) by Hans Holbein the Younger. .V&A Museum.

No P.40&A-1935.NAHwLEfz6B9Q at Google Cultural Institute. Commons.

 Perhaps some of these pages accidentally become detached from the books and being independent from  the manuscripts they were easier to transport  and therefore the idea to create the portable miniature portraits was born. 





The coronation of Charles VI of France.

14th century illumination.

"Grandes Chroniques de France".

National Library of France. Commons

Most probably many people started commissioning their portraits autonomously without it being part of a manuscript .




Portrait of Margaret Roper, miniature of 4.5 cm of diameter by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1536.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ID110001105. Commons. 





Miniature Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, by Levina Teerlinc, c. 1565. Commons.

An awe-inspiring Miniature Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, by Levina Teerlinc,

Comments: 3
  • #3

    Joyce Rogerson (Thursday, 09 May 2019 19:35)

    Amazing miniatures and very well explained.

  • #2

    Barry Riley (Thursday, 09 May 2019 17:52)

    Beautiful pictures and enlightening text.

  • #1

    George V. Pascual (Tuesday, 07 May 2019 16:56)

    Fantastic web and above all the explanation you provide in this blog. Congratulations