Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A Grand Miniature! A 6th Century Illumination of the Ascension

To commemorate the upcoming feast, here is a painting of the Ascension from a Syriac illuminated manuscript originating in Mesopotamia in the 6th century, the Rabula gospels. As such it represents a very early formulation of an authentic iconographic style.

The Mother of God is shown in an orans pose, wearing the traditional earth red outer robe that characterizes Eastern portrayals of her. Notice the geometric patterned border, which one would tend to associate with Western illuminations and would not be painted, ordinarily, on the raised border of icons made today.
Also, while there is some modeling in tonal variation, this is acting as a supporting player to the description of form by line. This is consistent with the general iconographic approach.
Illuminations in manuscripts are called miniatures. This is not due to their size, but due to the fact that typically the pigment lead oxide - red lead - was used to lay down the first lines of the drawing. This pigment was called minium in Latin, and later gave its name to the whole genre. Because many of these were of a small size (compared to liturgical art in churches) the word miniature came to be associated with that property too. In time, in the English language, it became the word used to denote any object of a small size.

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