Art and architecture

Book and illumination

Benedictine rule required monks to devote some of their time to work, a central part of which involved transcribing manuscripts and building up libraries. Indeed the book was a necessary instrument for practising the liturgy since it contained the words of their prayers and hymns. It was also the medium of their intellectual exercise, basically consisting of meditation on Holy Scripture, commentary on the works of the Church Fathers, or the study of a few ancient texts. In addition, it was the instrument of monastery administration: cartularies in which deeds of ownership and pious donations were written down, or obituaries listing masses to be said for the deceased, along with the income accruing from that duty. The book also asserted a monastery's prestige by preserving the memory of the saints and relics connected with its history.

The care taken in making a book shows the great symbolic importance attached to it, with form exalting content in a manner similar to a piece of architecture. Until the late 12th century making books was a monopoly of the monks and so it is not surprising to find the most valued scriptoria in the great abbeys that found favour with the dukes of Normandy. The book was entirely written by hand, and sometimes decorated with illuminations, one of the arts that best express the mixture of influences to which the artistic culture of Normandy was subjected under the dukes.

Early in the 11th century, the Carolingian tradition had handed down a style of full-page decoration in which more often than not the portrait of the sovereign made way for that of whichever holy evangelist or Church Father was the author of the treatise being copied. The neighbouring British Isles, which had close ties with Normandy long before the Conquest, continued this tradition, as seen notably in the Sacramentary, a gift to Jumièges Abbey from Abbot Robert, who became Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Edward the Confessor.

However, the originality of the Norman scriptoria as developed at the abbeys of Fécamp, Jumièges and Mont St Michel lies in the invention of decorated initials borrowing animal motifs in the Frankish tradition, interlace of Celtic or Norse inspiration, and leaf decorations in the Roman and Byzantine traditions. We find similar motifs in the ornamentation of the Romanesque churches, and in many cases the same artist may well have been both the sculptor and the copyist.

From the illuminated initial, which not only had decorative value but was also used to mark the start of a new section of text, the Norman illuminators moved on to the decorated initial in which characters or creatures of a natural or fantastic fauna were brought to life amid the foliage. Sometimes the scenes would be connected with the text they illustrated - scenes from the Old Testament, authors at work at their lecterns- alternatively, they might serve a more symbolic function, leaving the artists entirely free to show off their calligraphic skills.

The years 1090-1100 marked the acme of Norman illumination, which had spawned a whole decorative school that became widespread in England in the wake of the Conquest. One of the few artists of the period for whom we actually have a name was the monk, Hugo Pictor, who may have been an itinerant artist working at both Jumièges and Exeter.

The mid-12th century saw the original Norman style become diluted as the creative centres moved to the courts of the princes of France or of the Plantagenets, and with competition in the field of teaching from the great urban centres that were to give rise to the universities.



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