With their dazzling colours and exquisitely crafted borders, the manuscripts on show at the Royal Academy prove that God is in the details, says Waldemar Januszczak
However, if you turn now to that feeble putative Raphael, the so-called Madonna of the Pinks, which the National Gallery has made such an unnecessary song and dance about “saving” for the nation at the cost of £30m or so, and which is only about the size of an exercise book, you find yourself looking clearly at a minor achievement: half an artwork, a miniaturisation of a bigger talent, Raphael lite, something only a very foolish nation would waste this much money on. Thus, smallness plays it both ways. It can amplify an artwork’s miraculousness. Or it can simply constitute not enough.
The tiny sights currently being paraded before us by the Royal Academy in a show entitled, rather awkwardly, Illuminating the Renaissance (you expect weak puns of this order from headline-writers on the Daily Sport, but why are our galleries so fond of them?), belong firmly to the first category. We have here an exciting selection of spectacularly petite imagery painted onto the pages of a treasure-trove of handmade books produced in what we would now call Belgium in the years 1440-1540. Almost all of these excellent pages were painted for the notoriously opulent Burgundian court, whose actual holdings stretched down from Holland halfway into France.
So, why did this moneyed slab of lowland Europe grow so fond at this time of religious art on this scale? Visiting this show is a true test of eyesight, as well as of the spirit. There are books here the size of a Nurofen packet. Yet the Burgundians could have afforded art on any scale they wished. And since Gutenberg’s invention of printing, in 1450, coincides almost exactly with the start date of the show’s span, we have in front of us a century of seemingly unnecessary activity. Why produce handmade and hand-illustrated books in such time-consuming conditions, and at such great expense, when printing was already a flourishing alternative? The answer lies obviously before us in the objects themselves. There is an unmissable sense here of a product having reached its perfect form. Yes, the illuminated manuscript had an excellent and important history before the Burgundians took it up. It had been the chief painterly achievement of the Dark Ages, after all. But never before was it so abundantly in favour as here and now; and never had the skills of the illuminator advanced so near to the point of perfection.
I found myself looking at the back of a man’s head in a Crucifixion scene no bigger than a pack of butter, and I could make out the folds in the turban of that pin-sized back of a man’s head, and even note that the turban was made of a two-tone sarcenet silk, flashing simultaneously green and purple. Astonishing.
But the technical prowess of these largely unknown artists isn’t the only or, indeed, the chief thing to admire here. What I really like about the show is the care it takes to present its vivid painted pages as part of a larger experience involving the entire book. Most of the painted miniatures are from Books of Hours, the collections of prayers that Burgundian nobles would be required to recite at specific times of day and year. The way to use a Book of Hours was to open it up at the appropriate religious moment, read its text, gaze at its illustration and ponder the joint implications of the two.
Thus, the actual moment of opening the page, of seeing what lies before you, becomes a moment of revelation. Time becomes an issue, as well as the more usual dimensions of art, and the artist has more pressure on him than usual to engineer a revelatory experience for the opening of the page. Among the chief joys of Burgundian book illumination are the painted borders. Pretty much every Madonna or Crucifixion scene has around it a border packed with minutely observed flowers, insects, twirling acanthus, all painted to look miraculously real. Confront, say, Gerard David’s Madonna and Child, surrounded by a miniature garden of blossoms, or his Man of Sorrows, a bleeding Christ around whom nature has faded and begun to die, and it is clear that the perfectly painted portions of nature on which you have opened your book are there to turn this opening of the book into a moment of high drama. They are meant to feel real and startling.
Gerard David is one of the few contributors to the show whose name is known to us and who simultaneously played an important role in the development of Netherlandish oil painting. Most of these illuminators, working on parchment with tempera, never made such a transition. They have no names. And much scholarly fun has clearly been had coming up with things to call them: The Master of the Prayer Books of Around 1500, or The Master of the David Scene in the Grimani Breviary. It’s a touching and somehow wholesome anonymity.
The exhibition is one of those in which they have had to turn the lighting right down to preserve the fragile colours of the painted books. So you walk into an atmospheric twilight in which the display cases seem to loom up all around you, rather than settle immediately into a specific gallery order. It’s a setup that encourages a sense of discovery in the visitor, as you wander from case to case and choose the next dazzlingly coloured miniature world to enter. Because these books have been kept closed for most of their history, their colours remain pristine: almost unnaturally bright. Rarely can such ancient history have felt so brand-new. All of which is to say that this is a damned exciting exhibition.
Allow me now an angry digression. There was much moaning in the papers last week from a sad artist called Jack Vettriano, who is, we are sometimes told, the most popular artist in Britain today. Vettriano produces slick, magazine-style images of sharply suited men and erotically displaying women that many people clearly like, because he sells, by all accounts, an awful lot of postcards. Vettriano now feels he is being unfairly ignored by our national collections, which, he says, have a duty to reflect popular taste by including him. It also angers him that nobody from these great national collections has ever got back to him to tell him exactly why he has been omitted.
Well, let me do that for them. The national collections do not buy Vettriano’s work because it is meretricious rubbish. It may have a role to play on the walls of a cocktail bar with pretensions, but its intrinsic shallowness, its magazine slickness, the unsightly coyness of its eroticism, the absurd melodrama of its moods, the banality of its imaginative flourishes, the creepiness of its world-view, the facelessness of its finish, all these shortcomings disqualify it from serious consideration by a national collection. The state has no duty to buy it, any more than it has a duty to buy Tretchikoff’s Green Lady, or that popular poster of a female tennis player scratching her naked bum, or the three flying ducks. As Dryden once opined on the issue of popular taste: “The most may err as grossly as the few.”