French Illumination

French manuscript illumination

Drawings and painted decoration in manuscripts ornamented the text as well as illustrated or commented on it. Charlotte Denoël outlines the history of manuscript art in early medieval France.

The earliest French book illumination dates to the beginning of the eighth century. As with the Anglo-Saxon examples, many of these manuscripts are of liturgical or patristic texts, which were fundamental for the celebration of Mass and for monastic reading.

Merovingian manuscripts

The Merovingian dynasty ruled over the Franks in the territory similar to Roman Gaul from the time of Merovech (or Merovich), by tradition the father of Childeric I (d. 481) and grandfather of Clovis I (d. 511). A significant feature of Merovingian art is the importance of symbolic ornamentation instead of representations of the human figure. Typically the main ornamental decoration is limited to frontispieces, with decorated initials of the text formed of zoomorphic elements, often birds and fishes, probably chosen for their symbolic value.

Merovingian copy of St Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job

Add MS 31031, f. 55v

Decorated initial ‘B’ in a seventh-century commentary on Job produced in Laon (British Library, Add MS 31031, f. 55v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

This is true of an illuminated copy of a commentary on Job by St Gregory the Great (now British Library, Add MS 31031). For example, two birds and a fish make up the letter ‘B’ in the Commentary, in which the palette of colours is limited to orange, green and light brown.

Carolingian manuscripts

The advent of Charlemagne (r. 768–814) and his dynasty at the end of the eighth century opened a new era of luxury art production, driven by the religious and cultural reform initiated by Charlemagne himself. Amongst other initiatives he ordered a revision of the Bible, which gave rise to the production of new Bibles and Gospel-books. Many of these were made in the abbey of St Martin of Tours, in western France, a major centre for biblical scholarship under the direction of the English scholar Alcuin of York (b. c. 735, d. 804).

9th-century Gospel-book from Tours

Add MS 11849, f. 26v

Incipit page for the Gospel of St Matthew (British Library, Add MS 11849, f. 26v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The script, layout and decoration of these books were particularly elegant, as evidenced by a mid-ninth century Gospel-book (British Library, Add MS 11849), featuring a gold interlace frame and text in gold capital letters on purple panels.

11th-century manuscripts

Following the Norman invasions and the fall of the Carolingian empire, imperial patronage disappeared within France, and there was a decline in the production of opulent manuscripts, although this continued in the Holy Roman Empire under the Ottonian rulers. It was not until the beginning of the 11th century that a wide range of new artistic centres emerged across France. Many of these were Benedictine monasteries, including those with ties to the important abbey of Cluny, in Burgundy.

Gaignières Gospel Lectionary

Latin 1126, f. 2v

Incipit page for the Gospel of St Matthew (BnF, Latin 1126, f. 2v)

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An important centre of intellectual and cultural activity during this period was the monastery of Fleury, where the luxurious Gaignières Gospel Lectionary was copied (BnF, Latin 1126), probably by an Italian scribe for the Capetian French king Robert the Pious (r. 996–1031).

In the later 11th century, the vitality and the diversity of Romanesque art was manifest throughout France. Many liturgical and patristic books were illuminated in Paris, along with new texts such as lives of saints, such as the Life and miracles of St Nicholas made around the middle of the century (BnF, Latin 18303).

The Life and Miracles of St Nicholas

Latin 18303, f. 1v detail

St Nicholas and the three officers of Constantine (BnF, Latin 18303, f. 1v, detail)

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Each manuscript reveals a local style that combines elements of Carolingian decoration with new stylistic components. The sophistication of these works culminates in a magnificent Missal produced in the abbey of St Vaast in Arras, in northern France (BnF, Latin 9436). The book retains its spectacular treasure binding.

St Denis Missal

Latin 9436, f. 15v

Christ in Majesty (BnF, Latin 9436, f. 15v)

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The elaborate painting on purple background is borrowed from Carolingian and Ottonian models, and the inventiveness of the compositions and the precious binding provide powerful visual imagery for the sacred text. Another aspect of the production of illuminated manuscripts during this period is the increased evidence of itinerant artists, who worked in a number of different monastic centres when talented craftsmen were lacking locally.

12th-century French manuscripts

The 12th century was a period of artistic renaissance and renewal. This is certainly apparent in the extraordinary illumination of surviving manuscripts. The artistic landscape was reconfigured, with increased production in areas of northeastern France, Paris and Champagne, and a decline in artistic activity in the south. New stylistic approaches were employed, together with a growing sophistication in manuscript painting. A related development is the emergence of a new category of secondary decoration – the pen-flourished initial.

Chartres Bible (second of two volumes)

Latin 116, f. 12r detail

The Bride and Bridegroom (BnF Latin 116, f. 12r, detail)

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The splendid mid-12th century Chartres Bible, now in two volumes exemplifies a number of these trends. The large and elegant initials exhibit an impressive refinement, and are accompanied by delicate pen-flourished initials. The blue and red dominant colours, the linear manner in which the figures and the draperies are rendered, and the stylised foliage ornament in the painted initials show clear connections with developments in the production of stained glass and sculpture in Chartres cathedral and at the abbey of St Denis.

As in the earlier period, Bibles for monastic or canonical communities constituted an important proportion of illuminated manuscripts produced. All newly created foundations required a Bible for readings during services and meals.

Foigny Abbey Bible

Latin 15177, f. 19v

Decorated initial ‘I’ at the beginning of Genesis (BnF, Latin 15177, f. 19v)

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The Foigny Abbey Bible, produced in the later part of the 12th century, is one such book. It is of a monumental scale (515 x 365 mm), in four volumes. Like the Chartres Bible, it includes historiated and decorated initials at the beginning of books, together with pen-flourished initials punctuating the chapter divisions. The linear quality of the illumination in densely filled spaces shows affinities with Mosan art. In turn this may indicate the presence and movement of professional artists who worked in various religious foundations in different parts of France.

St Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’ Chronicon

Latin 14624, f. 1r detail

Initial ‘V’ with St Jerome writing (BnF, Latin 14624, f. 1r, detail)

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The increased involvement of lay scribes and artists is also evidenced by a collection of chronicles probably commissioned by Prince Henry of France (d. 1175), the younger brother of Louis VII (r. 1137–80). This refined manuscript features large foliate initials made by a professional artist working in Champagne, which are related stylistically to the ‘Channel style’ widespread in both England and the northeast of France at end of the 12th century. The illustration of non-biblical or liturgical texts indicates an expansion of the types of texts decorated in this period.

New illustrations were created for classical texts and for legal works, as well as for exegetical and theological texts. Another example of a new type of decoration occurs in the collection of works of the scholar and theologian Richard of St Victor, in the creation of diagrams illustrating his text.

Richard of St Victor's theological works

Latin 14516, f. 248r

Elevation of the temple of Ezekiel on the north (BnF, Latin 14516, f. 248r)

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The copy made at the abbey of St Victor may have been created under Richard’s direct supervision. These innovations are evident, too, in a Flavius Josephus manuscript copied in the north of France, possibly in the monastery of St Peter in Corbie.

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities and The Jewish Wars

Latin 16730, f. 3r

Creation scenes (BnF, Latin 16730, f. 3r)

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Together these manuscripts exemplify the extensive illustration characteristic of luxury book production in the last decades of the 12th century, foreshadowing the developments of later manuscript painting.

  • Charlotte Denoël
  • Charlotte Denoël joined the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 2002 as curator of medieval manuscripts, and from 2011 she has led the medieval manuscripts department. She specialises in manuscripts from the Carolingian period, as well as illumination of the High Middle Ages and the Romanesque period, and is also interested in the history of medieval libraries. In addition to her work at the BnF, Charlotte Denoël teaches the history of illumination at the École nationale des chartes and organises seminars and continuing education courses on medieval manuscripts. She is also a member of the laboratory council of the Centre Jean-Mabillon.