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“If it be necessary on any occasion to personify Death, this were surely better accomplished by means of some graceful and impressive figure of the Angel of Death, for whom we have the authority of Scripture; and such might become an established representative. The skulls and bones of modern, and the entire skeletons of former times, especially during the middle ages, had probably derived their origin from the vast quantities of sanctified human relics that were continually before the eyes, or otherwise in the recollection, of the early Christians. But the favourite and principal emblem of mortality among our ancestors, appears to have been the moral and allegorical pageant familiarly known by the appellation of the Dance of Death, which it has, in part, derived from the grotesque and often ludicrous attitudes of the figures that composed it, and especially from the active and sarcastical mockery of the ruthless tyrant upon its victims, which may be in a great measure attributed to the whims and notions of the artists who were employed to represent the subject.” But there is another origin besides the fancy of the artists, to which the representation of this series of pictures as a dance has been traced. Among other heathen customs which lingered amidst the rites and temples of the Christian faith, was that of dancing in churches and churchyards, and Mr. Douce has collected several legends and other curious matters relative to this practice. Notwithstanding the interdiction of several Councils, it was found impossible to abolish it altogether, and the clergy therefore contrived the Dance or Pageant of Death, which, whilst it afforded recreation and amusement, might at the same time convey a moral and religious sensation. Some grand spectacles of this description were celebrated in France in the fifteenth century. They became a favourite subject for the paintings with which the walls of churches were adorned ;* were then introduced in books of prayers and other religious works; and thus we are brought down to the early days of printing, and so to the aera of Holbein. Before Holbein's time, however, these pictorial dances had come to be generally known as the dances of Macaber, a person of unknown origin, by some taken for an artist, and by others for a German poet; by some altered to the Maccabees; others to Macrobius; and by the learned M. Van Praet, conjectured to be not a man, but an epithet derived from the Arabic word Magbarah, signifying a churchyard. Mr. Douce rebuts this conjecture, by remarking “that personified sculpture, as well as the moral nature of the subject, cannot belong to the Mahometan religion.” He has traced the word to its original in St. Macarius, the name of a hermit introduced into the story of “Les trois Morts et le trois Wifs,” a metrical work written in the thirteenth century. The series of designs on this subject usually attributed to Holbein, of which the editions have been numerous, and of which accurate copies are included in the present publication, have this distinction from the ancient Dance of Macaber, that whilst in the former Death is represented in a sort of grotesque attitude in the act of leading a single character, in the latter the subject generally consists of several figures, into whose presence Death, as an unwelcome and inexorable visitor, has intruded to summon away his victim. “In these designs,” says Mr. Douce, “which are wholly different from the dull and oftentimes disgusting Macaber Dance, which is confined, with little exception, to two figures only, we have the most interesting assemblage of characters, among whom, the skeletonized Death, with all the animation of a living person, forms the most important personage; sometimes amusingly ludicrous, occasionally mischievous, but always busy and characteristically employed.”
- the dance was painted round the cloisters of old St. Paul's cathedral; and in the Hungerford chapel at Salisbury cathedral; one of the subjects in which, Death and the “graceless Gallant," is engraved in Gough's Sepulchral Monuments, vol. ii.
Properly speaking, therefore, the designs attributed to Holbein, are not a Dance of Death, nor were they originally so called. Their title was, “Les Simulachres et historiees faces de la Mort,” and in Latin, “Imagines, or Icones Mortis.” But, as the idea was the same as in the earlier Dances, and as it was carried through a similar series of characters, it was almost immediately called a “ Todtentanz,” in a German copy published at Augsburg; and in the modern editions that name has been generally adopted. To distinguish the original engravings, first published at Lyons in 1538, Mr. Douce has usually mentioned them as the Lyons wood-cuts. With some reluctance he states his scruples in believing that they were actually the production of Holbein; principally founded on these circumstances, that they were not mentioned with Holbein’s other works, which received the praise of his contemporaries; that his name occurs in none of the old editions; and that their first editor, in 1538, expressed his regret that the “painter" who had “imagined" them, had died before he had completed his task, whereas Holbein lived till 1554. Mr. Ottley, (History of Engraving, 1816,) unwilling to detract from the name of Holbein one of his finest reputed works, was only able to meet the statement of the original editor, by supposing he had fallen into some misapprehension, from one of the engravers, instead of the painter, having died, and that the said editor was too glad of the opportunity to moralize on Death, as revenging himself upon his satirist, to inquire very particularly into the actual facts. To this interpretation of “words of plain import,” Mr. Douce does not assent ; and consequently, searching for an artist probable to be the painter spoken of in the dedication, he suggests the name of George Reperdius, who is ranked with Holbein in an epigram by Borbonius, but of whose history or works little is now known. If, on the death of Reperdius, Holbein was engaged to complete the series, “Holbein would thus be so connected with the work, as to obtain in future such notice, as would constitute him, by general report, the real inventor of it; and would remain in possession of a share, at least, of that inestimable work.” It must not be overlooked, that there was a Dance of Death actually painted by Holbein on the walls of the English palace of Whitehall, and that the only part of it of which a description has been preserved, (that of Death and the Elector,) proves the identity of the painting with the wood-cuts. (p. 145.) Having now noticed the principal points of discussion in Mr. Douce's Dissertation, we will state briefly the other contents of his volume, which are several curious bibliographical catalogues, and descriptive lists of prints. First, a list of editions of the Macaber Dance, of printed Horae that contain it, manuscript Horte, and other manuscripts in which it occurs. A list of the several editions of the Lyons wood-cuts; of their copies on wood; their copies on copper; and imitations of them. A catalogue of other Dances of Death. One of these is “ A booke of Christian Prayers,” printed by John Day, typographer to Queen Elizabeth; and commonly, but improperly, called Queen Elizabeth's Prayerbook. “This book was most probably compiled by John Fox, and is accompanied with elegant borders in the margins of every page, cut in wood by an unknown artist, whose mark is Ç though they have been most unwarrantably ascribed to Holbein,
and even to Agnes Frey, the wife of Albert Durer, who is not known with any certainty to have practised the art of engraving. At the end is a Dance of Death, different from any other of the kind, and of singular interest, as exhibiting the
i. of its time with respect to all ranks and conditions of life, male and emale.”
Having a copy of this volume at hand, we were induced to examine the cuts, and we find the letters C. I. (sometimes so placed, sometimes in the monogrammatic form, and occasionally accompanied by a graving tool), occurring on nearly every page through all the designs taken from the Scriptures; but the series of the Dance of Death has a different mark, which in every instance but one, is the letter G., and in that (Death and the Marquess) G. D., the latter initial perhaps standing for delineavit. These ancient engravers in wood, whose productions Mr. Douce justly remarks have never been equalled until very recently, have left few memorials of themselves behind them, except their works. Towards the end of the same list we were amused to find a modern French Dance of Death, under the title of “Voyage pour l'Eternité, service général des omnibus Accelerés, départ à tout heure et de tous les points du globe;" a series of nine lithographic engravings by J. Grandville, published about 1830. Mr. Douce has also catalogued, books in which the subject is occasionally noticed, particularly those of Emblems and Fables; single Prints connected with the subject; initials and capital letters in which it is introduced; paintings, drawings, &c. &c.; and lastly he notices briefly the abundant errors of the several writers who have written hastily on this prolific source of moral and satirical pictures.
Selected from Manuscripts and early printed Books from the Sirth to the Seventeenth Centuries, drawn and engrared by Henry Shaw, F.S.A. with Descriptions by Sir Frederic Madden, K.H. F.R.S. F.S.A. &c. &c. Assistant Keeper of the MSS. in the British Museum. 4to.
We have so frequently noticed this beautiful publication as a work of art, that its name must have long been familiar to our readers. It may be justly regarded as an assemblage of specimens of all that is most graceful in design and gorgeous in colouring, among the productions of the ancient illuminators of books; for, although the subjects which it comprises are confined almost entirely to the borders, arabesques, and initial letters, yet those portions certainly present as much, if not more elegance of design, elaborate minuteness, and variety of hues, as the larger pictures which often occupy the whole or a considerable portion of the page. The compositions of figures, or historical designs, in ancient MSS. are seldom remarkable for skilful drawing or elegance of composition; and are chiefly valuable for the knowledge which they incidentally afford of costume, and other points connected with antiquity. It is in the intricacy of the patterns, the arrangement of the foliage, the laborious minuteness with which flowers and other natural beauties are copied, and the combination of colours, that the genius and talents of the illuminators are principally displayed : these are faithfully represented in the volume before us. We mention the variety of the colours as an essential part of the illuminator's merits; and it is certainly requisite that a copy should have the same advantage, in order to convey an adequate idea of the original. It is therefore worthy of remark that the present is the first publication in which the colours have been copied ; the great expense having been an obstacle to the previous execution of so beautiful a design. To copy in a similar manner a series of highly finished miniatures (individually the work of many weeks to the original artists) appears almost hopeless; and, for the reasons before stated, it is perhaps less requisite, and the colours which are most important (such as those of dresses, &c.) can be conveyed by description. The best plan is to engrave the designs in outline, as judiciously done by the Society of Antiquaries in some of their recent productions, and colouring is then practicable, if the possessor be inclined to incur the expense.
Mr. Shaw's plates are now illustrated by descriptions, from the competent authority of Sir Frederic Madden, and accompanied by an Introduction, in which a critical history of the progress of the art of illuminating Manuscripts is for the first time attempted. The subject is well recommended to notice as “ the connecting link between the ancient and modern schools of painting;” and it is no small incentive to its study with an English antiquary, that Mr.
Ottlev, the historian of Painting, has mentioned a period, namely, the tenth and eleventh centuries, when the illuminators of England and France excelled those even of Italy, or any other country.
The purpose of larger, coloured, aud ornamented letters, to mark the commencement of a new subject, is obvious; and a similar practice is noticed by Sir Frederic Madden in the Egyptian papyri, and as having been practised by the Romans, according to the testimony of Ovid and Pliny.
“But in the most ancient MSS. now remaining, red letters are used but sparingly, and only at the beginning of books, or for titles. Such is the case in the Medicean copy of Virgil, in the Alexandrian Codex, and in the St. Cyprian and St. Augustine, formerly in the monastery of St. Germain des Pres; in each of which the books commence with three lines written in vermillion. All these volumes are assigned by the best judges to the fourth or fifth centuries. “The process of laying on and burnishing gold and silver, appears to have been familiar to the oriental nations from a period of remote antiquity, and although there are no instances of its use in the Egyptian papyri, yet it is not unreasonable to believe that the Greeks acquired from Egypt or India the art of ornamenting manuscripts thus, which they probably conveyed to the Romans. Among the later Greeks, the usage became so common, that the scribes or artists in gold were termed xfootpato, and seem to have constituted a distinct class. Pliny is silent as to the practice in his time, therefore we may suppose it commenced among the Latins at the beginning of the second century. The luxury thus introduced was augmented by writing on vellum stained of a purple or rose colour, the earliest instance of which is recorded by Julius Capitolinus in his Life of the Emperor Maximinus the Younger, to whom his mother made a present of the poems of Homer, written on purple vellum, in golden letters. This took place at the commencement of the third century. For upwards of a hundred years the practice seems to have continued of rare occurrence, but, towards the end of the fourth century, we learn from a well-known passage of St. Jerome, thct it had become more frequent. It was, however, confined solely to copies of the Scriptures and devotional books, written for the libraries of princes, and the service of monasteries. The celebrated Coder Argenteus of Ulphilas, written in silver and gold letters on a purple ground, about A.D. 360, is perhaps the most ancient existing specimen of this maguiocent mode of calligraphy, after which may be instanced the copy of Genesis at Vienna, the Psalter of St. Germain des Pres, and the fragment of the New Testament in the Cottonian library, Titus, C. xv. all executed in the fifth and sixth centuries. This taste for gold and purple manuscripts seems only to have reached England at the close of the seventh century, when Wilfrid, archbishop of York, enriched his church with a copy of the gospels thus adorned. An unique example of a MS. written and illuminated on gold grounds, on both sides of the leaf, is preserved in the British Museum. (A faithful fac-simile of this precious fragment will be found in the four first plates of Mr. Shaw's Work.) Manuscripts written in letters of gold on white vellum are chiefly confined to the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Of these, the Bible and Hours of Charles the Bald, preserved in the royal library at Paris, and the Gospels of the Harleian collection, No. 2788, are, probably, the finest examples extant. In England, the art of writing in gold seems to have been but imperfectly understood in early times, and the instances of it very uncommon. Indeed, the only remarkable one that occurs of it is the Charter of King Edgar to the New Minster at Winchester, in the year 966. (MSS. Cott. Vesp. A. vi.11). This volume is written throughout in gold. “Writing in gold was less employed in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, than in earlier times, but it again came into usage in the fourteenth, particularly in devotional books of persons of rank. It then exhibits, however, a totally different appearance from the ancient art, and the gilding seems to be applied, not in a liquid state, but in leaves. - + + + “'The initial letters of manuscripts in the earliest period were not distinguished in size from the rest of the text (the whole of which was then written in capitals), and when coloured were of a much simpler taste than began to be used at the end of the seventh century. In this, as in every other change relative to the art of calligraphy or painting, the Greek school took the lead, and afforded models which the rest of Europe was content for a long time to copy. - - - + “ from the eighth to the eleventh century occur in Greek and Latin MSS. initial letters of a large size at the commencement of books and chapters, fancifully composed of human figures, animals, birds, fish, flowers, &c. In Montfaucon an alphabet is given, selected from MSS. of the ninth and tenth centuries, many of which