Turismo Prerrománico > Miniature general description

Miniature general description

In 1924, as Cubism began to assert itself, the Society of Friends of Art organized an exhibition of illuminated Spanish manuscripts in Madrid. The Blesseds then emerged from a multisecular oblivion to shine in all its splendor: they appeared abruptly as the direct ancestors of the most recent pictorial concerns. These painters of the tenth century had already practiced a technique of glaze long before Gauguin, preceded by Matisse in the fluid counter-curves of its contours, invented the anti-realist expressiveness of the Picasso in The Ladies of Avignon,…

Jacques Fontaine (L’Art Mozarabe) 


Miniatura Mozórabe: Curiosas semejanzas entre una 'Señorita de Avignon' y San Lucas de la Biblia Sacra de LeónIn that exhibition, at the height of Cubism, appeared some illuminated Spanish manuscripts created in the High Middle Ages that, after more than ten centuries of total forgetfulness, suddenly appear as a direct antecedent to much of the concerns of artists of the early twentieth century.

These were times when the avant-garde appealed to a new concept of art that would overcome the limitations of traditional classifications. With the Renaissance, art had been refounded on new criteria that went in the opposite direction of the profound spirituality of the Middle Ages: as opposed to the plurisecular figurative art, the values of this minimalist art offered a new perspective in the face of the aesthetic crisis caused by the photographic technique.

The miniatures present glazes that would have inspired Gauguin, countercurves that Matisse would have signed and, above all, offer a clear antecedent of the faces and figures that we find in the Picasso de  cubist era. All created a thousand years earlier.

Since that time, the Altomedievales Spanish manuscripts have become a topic of priority interest for the main Spanish and foreign researchers, who have encountered great difficulties in establishing their dating, authorship and, mainly, the relationship between the different authors and manuscripts due both to the time that has elapsed and to the scarcity of documentation on the period, to the stylistic differences between the different illuminators despite the recognition in all of them of a clear common spirit, the multiple influences that have been detected in each one of them and the evident fact that what has reached us is only a minimal part of the production of the Spanish scriptoria from the sixth century of San Leandro and San Isidoro until the introduction of the Roman liturgy at the end of the 11th century.

Because, although the most interesting codices we know were created basically in the 10th century and part of the 11th, in no way can the so-called “Mozarabic miniature” be considered as an isolated fact of the culture generated in Spain throughout the Visigoth monarchy, people more cultured than other European invaders who allowed with great freedom the fusion of their own culture, strongly influenced by more than two hundred years of relationship with the Roman Empire, with all the cultural background that already existed in 5th century Hispania and with all the artistic influences that came to the peninsula at that time. That culture not only created the most important and high-quality monuments in Western Europe, as Saint Isidore explains in his Etymologies, but also promoted the existence of scriptoria of the importance of those of Seville or Toledo and allowed the development of a wide literary production, in which he highlighted the work of San Isidoro, the most important character of the culture of his time, that was also the first Internet pattern.

Miniatura Altomedieval: Pentateuco Ashburnham (siglo VII), detalleFrom our point of view, that eclectic culture that existed in Hispania before the Arab invasion, which was maintained in both the Christian and Mozarabic kingdoms in Al Andalus and to which new influences were added, mainly Islamic and Carolingian, was the one that was imposed in the territories reconquered throughout the 9th and 10th centuries and that generated the most important manuscripts of the period.

Because of this we understand that our study, whose aim is exclusively to present an overview of the Spanish altomedieval miniature, describing its characteristics and its codices of greater interest, should begin by analyzing its development from the middle of the V century.

The book in the Spanish High Middle Ages

The burning of books was one of the most common events throughout the Spanish Middle Ages. From the ordination of Recaredo for the Arian books in the middle of the sixth century, to that of Jewish books ordered by Cardinal Cisneros at the end of the fifteenth century, the massive destructions took place, being especially significant those ordered by Almanzor, both that of much of the contents of al-Hakam’s library in Cordoba, and that of Christian books in Al Andalus and the destruction of many monasteries and episcopal sees in Christian Spain, which reached as far as Santiago de Compostela, including its libraries. Great losses also generated the destruction of many Christian books and Arabic literature considered heterodox by the Almoravids in the eleventh century, which even burned in 1109 the books of the Eastern philosopher AlGazali, as well as the consequences of the order given by Pope Gregory IX on the burning of Jewish books.

Because of this, of the thousands of books that had to be written in that period, considering only Christian literature, about 400 high-medieval codices are conserved, among complete manuscripts and fragments of others, of which about 250 in Visigothic lower case letters. Most are religious books to which we must add a group that we could consider as institutional books, generally with very specific purpose and structure:

Códice Albeldense (976), detalleLiturgical books
Manuale o Liber Misarum con las oraciones de la Misa.
Commicus, con las profecías, epístolas y evangelios de la Misa.
Antifonario con texto y música de los Oficios Divinos.
Liber Sermonorum; sermones para domingos y día festivos.
Psalterio, con los salmos bíblicos.
Liber Horarium, con los rezos de diversos Oficios.
Liber Hymnorum, que incluía los cantos de las horas canónicas.
Liber Passionum, con textos historiográficos.

Spiritual books
La Biblia, sometimes only some of his books were available.
Libri auctorum, among which are works by various Christian authors such as Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome or Saint Isidore among others. Included in this group are copies of the Commentaries to the Apocalypse.
Monastic rules

Institutional booksCódice Emilianense (992), detalle
Historical chronicles
Law Books
Council Minutes
Wills Books
Collections of official documents (Tumbos)

Within this set of books, in addition to the series of the Blessed, to which we dedicate a specific section, deserve a special mention the historical chronicles that were written in the Asturian kingdom between the 8th and 10th centuries, and that have come down to us in several codices brought up in the 10th century and beyond. The origin and dating of these chronicles and their reflection, mainly in the codices Albeldense, Emilianense and de Roda have been the subject of many studies and interpretations, and are now considered as the most reliable contribution by C. Sánchez-Albornoz, with which M. Gómez Moreno and other important historians have coincided. According to this theory, six chronicles can be highlighted about the history of the kingdom of Asturias from its origins until the reign of Bermudo II:

  • An eighth-century chronicle , written by some clergyman who obtained direct information from people who lived through the fall of the Visigoth kingdom. It has not reached us, but Ambrose of Morales could read it in the sixteenth century and its influence is recognizable in the later chronicles.
  • The Epitome Ovetensis, which includes a summary of the universal history and that of the kingdom of Asturias until the end of the reign of Alfonso III, is not known its author and is used for the preparation of the Albeldense Codex.
  • The Chronicle called “Prophetic”, because based on an interpretation of a prophecy by Ezekiel, it announced the end of Muslim rule in Spain. It was written by a Mozarabic monk, possibly Bishop Dulcidius, in 883.
  • The Chronicle of Alfonso III, which is supposed to be written by said monarch based on that of the eighth century, with some phrases of the Prophetic, and adding the facts of his reign. It is written in simple language and was the version used to write the Roda Codex.
  • The “Crónica Erúdita“, a cultured version of the previous one, possibly written by Sisnando, bishop of Santiago de Compostela in the time of Alfonso III, correcting the style and some contents that improve the image of the church in the Visigoth era and adding religious texts.
  • Chronicle of Sampiro, bishop of Astorga, who wrote the history of the Asturian kingdom from Alfonso III to Bermudo II.


Characteristics of the Miniature Altomedieval EspañolaI

According to what we have seen so far, the illuminators of the manuscripts of the 10th and 11th centuries started from a cultural baseBeato del Burgo de Osma (1086), detalle and a very profound artistic work, which brought as much memory of the Classical culture sifted by the different indigenous cultures, as all the Germanic, Byzantine, Oriental and North African influences that had converged in Visigoth art, the great cultural impact of the Caliphate of Cordoba in the time of Abd al-AssadRahman III and the information about the Carolingian art and the Irish miniature that came through the relations that the Asturian monarchy had established with the Empire of Charlemagne and later through the Camino de Santiago. All this within a common, deeply Christian spirit, but in an environment of ample creative freedom, which allowed each artist to express himself to a great extent in accordance with his own personality.

That is why, in trying to analyze its main characteristics, we are facing a world with very homogeneous basic roots, sharing a cultural background and a similar historical situation, but with very personal approaches and multiple influences very difficult to analyze and, above all, to group in styles or schools, all this in a very eclectic artistic environment. Therefore, when analyzing the pictorial style of most of the works one can consider much more significant the quality and personality of each miniaturist than his or her belonging to some possible school or family, although it is evident that in most cases each manuscript takes into account the new findings, both technical and aesthetic, that have occurred in some of the previous codices, but used in general according to the tastes of the new miniaturist.

Beato de Navarra (Finales del S. XII), detalleDue to all this we understand that the clear differences that exist between some authors must be analyzed mainly based on two basic lines: one would be that of the developments, both technical and stylistic that were produced over the years from the second quarter of the tenth century. The other the quality and personality of each author, which allowed him to choose, within a large set of options, the most appropriate to their characteristics.

Within this complicated environment, the technical and aesthetic development of the Mozarabic miniature throughout the 10th century was spectacular although it maintained, within the personality and style of each of its illuminators, a component of strong national roots that is manifested in its scant interest in reflecting reality, generating a spiritual environment based on figures without perspective or third dimension, with strong essential strokes that generate highly schematic images, in a kind of abstraction in which parallel lines and symmetry tend to predominate. According to Neuss “his energy, his life, his dramatism, and his deep vibration discover his Hispanism”.

An important fact to bear in mind is that while the Cluniac reform and the implementation of the Gregorian liturgy practically wiped out the spirit that had been maintained in the Visigoth world and in the Mozarabic in everything related to the architecture and structure of the environments of worship, in the miniature, perhaps because of the enormous personality of the codices that would be distributed throughout Christian Spain, the same spirit was maintained and until the thirteenth century continued to make copies, especially of the Commentaries to the Apocalypse of Beato de Liébana that, although reflecting the new styles and techniques that were appearing, they respected the spirit and structure of the first manuscripts. Because of this, in this area we extended the basic period of our study, until the thirteenth century, to be able to include the last samples of what could be considered the only time of development a Spain of an indigenous art.

As a complement to all the above we are including in this web with the collaboration of Jean-Luc Monneret great expert in manuscripts dedicated to the Apocalypse of St.John, the analysis of other European medieval manuscripts, that can serve as a counterpoint to the value of the Spanish miniature.

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