One of the fun things about Illuminated Manuscripts are finding the little details hidden in the art. Additions of strange creatures, or the use of animals or people to form letters. In the background there are sometimes many strange and fascinating images that came from the mind of the Middle Ages. In this first image, which I couldn’t find more about, there are huge snails and people living in snail shells. In fact it appears to be a fanciful version of the Nativity or a Madonna and Child. In the snail shell on the left it looks like the “Familia Sagrada” or Holy Family. I was reminded of a movie my children loved called The Neverending Story, where one of the characters rides on the back of a giant racing snail.
In this next example we see beehives which have been incorporated into the illumination. This comes from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. This famous book of hours has several combinations of nature being used to fill in the art. You can find page borders using Salmon linked together, and large feathers, and bean pods. The Hours of Catherine, like many of the other great Illuminated Manuscripts, depicts many beautiful scenes from the Sacred Scriptures, of Saints, Martyrs, and on the darker side depictions of Hell and Demons.
Humor isn’t lacking either in the mind of the artist from these times. The imagination of the artist was clearly open to all sorts of ideas which were able to be poured into these beautiful sacred books. In this last example we see jousting rabbits.
This scene is found in a Breviary, which is a more complete version of a Book of Hours, which were used by Clergy. These books contained the Liturgy of the Hours as well as prayers, psalms and hymns for use in the Liturgy. The Book of Hours was really a layman’s version of the Breviary, and in both there are many great examples of classic art and illumination.
What I find most interesting about these and other examples of strange illumination is that the little details that seem to be outside of the serious nature of a religious text find their way into the art. In a time which has been accused of being intolerant, especially in the area of religion, it seems to be out of place. And yet in the very texts themselves we see artistic freedom that would go beyond the utilitarian nature of publishing today. Granted, with the advent of the printing press, books which took years to make could be mass produced and made available for a fraction of the price. The price was a decline in illumination and sadly the use of art and text today is found mostly in advertisement.