The word miniature derives from the Latin word minium, denoting a red lead colour used in the Middle Ages for initials and inscriptions in manuscripts. More broadly, this word denotes a small-scale pictorial depiction executed in various techniques and on various grounds such as ivory, parchment, paper and metal. In the Italian language, miniare means to paint small formats.
Miniature painting as pictorial decoration of text, i.e. illustration, dates from the earliest periods of literacy. Initially, it was inextricably bound to the text, and used to decorate Greek, Roman and Early Christian manuscripts.
It occurs in medieval codices, in Irish, Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts in the West, as well as in numerous richly decorated Byzantine, Persian and Arab manuscripts in the East. Whilst in the beginning, the miniature merely complemented and explained the text, it later acquired a life of its own, though still accompanying the text of the book, and claimed entire pages for itself.
Miniature painting evolved into a separate art form in ancient Greece, and was later adopted by the Romans. Early Byzantine miniatures recall the Hellenistic-Roman style with echoes of the Middle East. The method employed here is that of continuous narration or of sequencing of scenes. In the 7th and 8th centuries, miniatures drew on some Oriental influences, only to revert to the ancient tradition during the revival of the neoclassical style from the 10th to the 12th century. From this time date the richly ornamented court psalters with full-page miniatures (The Paris Psalter). In contrast to these, monasic psalters had their illustrations in the margins. Also created at this time were numerous gospels with miniatures of the Evangelists as well as historical manuscripts containing scenes of court life and war harking back to the tradition of Hellenistic Alexandrians.
Irish and Anglosaxon 7th and 8th century manuscripts cultivated a special kind of illumination, based on their folklore and ornamental tradition and influenced by Egyptian monastic manuscripts. Characteristic of these illuminations are braided initials with floral or zoomorphic ornaments. This art would later spread to the continent, where Carolingian miniaturists blended it with the Classical tradition. Classical echoes, coupled with strong Byzantine influences, also occur in the luxurious German miniatures created in the scriptoria of Ottonian monasteries.
Romanesque and Gothic 12th and 13th century art
of illumination bears the characteristics of these two res-pective styles, whilst at the same time drawing inspiration from other contemporary arts. The status of the illuminator becomes gradually more secular while illumination, no more the preserve of monks in monasteries, shifts to workshops catering for universities as well as for bibliophilic tastes of aristocrats and rich citizens.
In the 15th century, within the overall framework of Renaissance painting, there emerged a new kind of miniature - its subject matter free, its composition uncon-strained by iconographic tradition. Nature is depicted realistically, and the drawing technique is ever more refined. The Limbourg brothers from France, court miniaturists to Duke de Berry, painted some of the best miniatures of the 15th century if not perhaps of all times.
For Duke de Berry they illuminated a prayer book (Les tres riches heures du Duc de Berry), also containing a calendar section with 12 months. In Italy, book illustrations were created by some great Renaissance painters such as Fra Angelico and Sandro Botticelli.
With the advent of printing, the art of manuscript illumi-nation slowly disappeared. Even though some printed books continued to be illuminated for a while, miniature painting as a way of illustrating books gradually died out.
The 16th century saw the emergence of portrait mini-ature. This kind of miniature appeared simultaneously in
a number of European art centers and persisted as such until the mid 19th century. The portraits were of kings, donors and saints. Gradually, this form of painting sought
to achieve greater independence. Initially confined to portraiture, it was not long before it encompassed other themes, especially those of landscapes with some idyllic figural or the so-called fetes galantes scenes. Miniatures were either in the shape of a medallion and worn for decorative purposes, or they were used to decorate some small utile objects. In terms of subject-matter, technique and application, they varied widely. However, what they did have in common was the refinement and precision of execution and small size. In the 16th and 17th centuries they were executed in thick watercolours (gouache), tempera and oil, combined with gilding, on grounds such as paper, parchment, cardboard as well as thin plates of copper, silver or gold. Miniature painting in England was developed by the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, who was court painter to Henry VIII. A unique group of miniatures were those executed in enamel (workshops in Limoges, Blois, and Chateaudun) and used to embellish small utile objects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, miniatures were also executed, alongside other painting techniques, in water-colour on plates or sheets of ivory. The delicate and subtle colours, combined with special qualities of ivory, to produce an exquisite, transluscent effect.
Serbian miniature painting spans seven centuries, starting with the 12th and ending with the beginning of the 19th century, when manuscripts were entirely supplanted
by printed books, causing the aforementioned type of miniature painting to disappear. The first known Serbian miniaturist was Grigorije, who participated in illuminating Miroslav’s Gospels. The last was Hadži Ruvim, his work dated 1804, around the time of the First Serbian Uprising.
Initials and headpieces formed the basis of early and more humble Serbian manuscript decoration. The more luxurious manuscripts were decorated with miniatures or figural depictions/illustrations. The beginnings of miniature painting/illustration in Serbian manuscript illumination can be traced back to Miroslav’s Gospel, which clearly reveals the influence of Romanesque and naïve art. At this stage
of miniature painting, human figures served as decoration rather than illustration. However, this relationship gradually changed in favour of illustration, so that the pictorial depiction in the text increasingly came to illustrate the written word, especially scenes from the Scriptures and
the Apocripha. The main characteristic of Serbian 12th
and 13th century miniature is that it combines Eastern and Western influences. Ornamentation is dominant, whereas the living beings and things are distorted and deformed, expressionless, vapid and devoid of spirituality. Byzantine art was to bring to Serbian miniature painting a new spirit,
a spirit of monumentality and spirituality, while portraits acquire Classical features. In the 14th and 15th centuries there appeared manuscript miniatures that rank among the best works of Byzantine art. Miniatures dating from this period are genuine illustrations, their connection with the text not merely formal any more. One of the most famous illuminated manuscripts of that time is the Munich Psalter, which belonged to Despot Đurađ Branković.
Non-ecclesiastical literature - lay and popular books - was also cultivated at courts of Serbian aristocracy. Thus, with Western influences coming to Serbia from the Medi-terranean, there arrived the Novel on Alexander the Great (known as Alexandrida), a richly illustrated book which was widely read accepted. We know of two such illuminated copies of the Serbian Alexandrida, dating from the end of the 14th century (the Belgrade copy was burnt with the rest of the National Library in 1941, whereas the other copy is kept in the National Library in Sofia). Also from this period date some code of laws manuscripts, such as the extra-ordinary copy of Despot Stefan Lazarević Mining Codex, lavishly illustrated with narrative, full-page illustrations.
In the more recent Serbian painting, few artists have engaged in miniature painting, with the exception of two mid-19th century painters – Anastas Jovanović and Petar Palikrušić. Portrait miniatures had been common in Serbian art during the whole of the Biedermeier period, continuing well into the mid-19th century as the works of the above two painters confirm. Anastas Jovanović painted watercolour portraits on a daguerreotype base. With the advent and fast spread of photography, portrait painting in general and miniature painting in particular were gradually superseded by this new medium.
Miniature painting is rare in contemporary fine art and
is more often associated with some applied arts. Today, miniatures still occur in books, as black-and-white and colour illustrations. They are also used in photography as well as in medalling, jewellery, ivories and other art forms which have, both technologically and subject matter-wise, preserved continuity with the old days.
That the art of miniature painting still lives today also owes something to the fact that a number of domestic and international exhibitions are organized in this country. One such show, The International Biennial of Miniature Art, is currently being held under the auspicies of the Gornji Mila-novac Cultural Centre for a seventh time and ranks among the best and most prestigious exhibitions of this kind.
Miniature painting has come a long way and over time its forms and significance have changed. It has undergone various influences, suffered numerous changes and passed through many stages. It was constrained by the text it accompanied and smothered by ornamental frames, but it eventually succeeded in winning its own, independent place among the existing arts. Today, we view miniatures as works of art that exist in their own right and are subject to specific rules, different from those governing other forms of art. Their unique character stems from their compact compositions and the artist’s ability to express himself in such a small-scale medium. Miniature painting is not about representing a single detail, a cutting from a larger piece. On the contrary, it is about designing and creating a coherent and homogeneous small-scale work of art, which can in every sense be characterized as an autonomous artistic whole. Which, incidentally, is its purpose and its raison d’être.