Posted by: Wes and Rachelle Siegrist | December 4, 2011

Chapter 4: The Historical Origins of Miniature Art

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

The Historical Origins of Miniature Art

Antecedents to the miniature genre are sporadically found such as the work of an unknown artist who rendered a “Portrait of a Man” on glass ca. 250 AD and Lala of Cyzicus practicing in 4th century Rome, who specialized in little portraits rendered by etching onto ivory.[i] Early Renaissance master, Cimabue and his more widely known pupil, Giotto, certainly laid the foundations of realism in the miniatura of book illustration that had parallels outside of books in small panel paintings. Surely many forerunners to miniature art have been lost with time but scholars tend to identify certain threads of origin that weaved together to develop into the miniature we know today. A brief look at each of them and their contribution to the genre create a framework for the latter developed parameters.

The Illuminated Manuscript: As noted in the etymological origins, much of the terminology that developed into miniature pertained to book illumination. This art form and the related terminology had no explicit reference to size or scale. Limitations were due to the specific size of the physical page and usual styles of the illuminators. In classical Roman times, the miniator applied the minum to the text and had nothing to do with the pictorial image or miniatura.[ii] Pictorial representations were discouraged by the church prior to the 4th century but under Constantine, manuscript illumination assumed a more decorative role known as the Byzantine school.[iii]Even though the Church practically forbade realism in art as a reaction against graven images, the religious motivation provided a strong directional emphasis in illumination in the monastic period towards the elaborate decoration of a page. The aim, however, was decorative versus the illustration of a story.[iv] The foundation of universities ca.1180-1223 gave rise to secular books alongside the religious, and broadened the scope of subject matter depicted in illumination.[v] As early as the 13th century, owing to the reduction in size of manuscript folios, diminutive and refined miniatura became emphasized as illustrative pictures with decorative bordered framing on the page.[vi] By the start of the 14th century, illuminators set themselves to render real portraiture, not idealized or decorative, and they began to include equally refined landscape backgrounds.[vii]

The broadened scope of subjects influenced the miniatores/artists to strive for more individuality, likenesses and realistic modeling of forms which reached a pinnacle in the general art world at the hands of Renaissance artist, Jan van Eyck. He tossed aside all traditions and pursued solely the faithful imitation of life achieving “the illusion of nature by patiently adding detail upon detail till his whole picture became like a mirror of the visible world.”[viii]By the 15th century, miniatura were more pictorial and occupied the place of prominence on the page. Artists pursued the recent innovations of perspective and the study of light and shade which further heightened the move away from stylized decoration to realistic illustration. This pursuit of greater pictorial qualities, not always appropriate for manuscript illumination, provided an incentive for the miniatores to take up panel painting. The waning vitality of their profession due to the invention of the printing press solidified the migration of the art from page to panel creating the conversion of miniatores into miniaturists in the sense that we perceive both today.[ix]Painters of this period were also lured away from the miniatores preferred medium of watercolor by the ever-increasing popularity of oils.[x] They were accustomed to painting small in size and scale as illuminators and their independent small panels in oils possessed all the refined qualities of their previous work in watercolor. A clear cut line of distinction between their styles and medium was gone with the exception of support: an attached page or an independent panel.[xi] The use of the same techniques regardless of the size, from small panels to large scale works, facilitated the use of size and scale as descriptive distinctions between works which give enhanced meaning to Hilliard’s statement of making “pictures of her body and person in small compass in lymnage only”. In the context of his day, within the milieu of artistic developments, he was emphasizing the uniqueness of his work both in diminutive size/scale as well as technique.[xii] The elements that evolved combined to create miniature paintings, and while one may attribute the name ‘miniature painting’ to earlier miniatura in manuscripts based upon similarities, the two art forms are distinct with their own unmovable elements.[xiii]

One of the greatest of the miniatores during their waning days was Giorgio Giulio Clovio. A contemporary and friend of Michelangelo, he was hailed as both the “Michelangelo in Little” and the “Raphael in Little”.[xiv] His work combined the strength of Michelangelo and the finesse of Raphael.[xv]His limnings were known for their extremely fine, life-like and miraculous minuteness and it was in his hands that the technique of miniatura granita [stippling] found perfection.[xvi] Clovio, in his work, treated the pages of the book as a canvas for fine art, raising it from the mere decoration of a page to setting the stage for the full detachment of the miniatura which formed the final evolution in the development of the miniature.[xvii]

Illuminations differed from the detached art, later described as miniature, in several specific ways. First, they were integral to the manuscript; illustrating and telling the story through visual imagery. Later detached miniatures needed no connection to a physical page or storyline. Secondly, illuminations were rendered and associated with decorative techniques that typically employed the use of either gold or silver, as embellishments and reflective elements, and the miniatores illuminating the manuscripts made use of a wide variety of pigments. Miniaturists, on the other hand, were more concerned with the viability of their colors exposed to light outside of the protection of a sealed book. Finally, on a practical level, miniaturists had to develop new functional supports and housing for their art which tangibly created obvious differences with their predecessors. While illuminations in books are commonly referred to as miniatures through etymological associations and developments, it should be noted that most detached works of art, known as miniatures, cannot be properly called illuminations in reverse.[xviii] The detached branch followed the turn in style to pursue realistic, recognizable likenesses with their subjects, a trait that would distance and distinguish them as a separate art form for centuries to follow. As cherished mementos, miniatures assumed an intimate bond with their owners unknown to conventional arts best communicated with the quote: “Many a miniature have been kissed by dying lips.”[xix] Today’s miniature art movement encompasses an amalgamation of both branches of the miniature traditions: the realistic centered in the West, and the more stylized decorative approach which call to mind the illuminations of the manuscripts, dominating in the East. Today, with the emphasis on fine art in miniature, all styles are included although realism remains dominant.

It is also interesting to note that the scholarly consensus on the link with minium, or the red lead, typical of the rubrication involved in manuscript illumination, is glaringly absent from subsequently detached miniatures. The usage of minium as a defining attribute did not transfer to the separate miniature which may have been due to the fugitive nature of the red lead.[xx] Exposed to light minium turned dark, but while sealed inside the pages of the book it could remain vibrant for some time.* The development of the mechanical printing press in the 1400s began to gradually replace all need for illuminators, and the eventual demise of the hand-embellished manuscript spurred the birth of the novel detached miniature.[xxi]

Detached Limnings and Panel Paintings: Limnings were synonymous with pictorial miniatura in manuscripts but even before the decline of the written page, artists began to make their art available apart from the illuminated text. This was probably due to opportunities in the market of religious icons afforded by the rise in power of Catholic appreciation for the arts. The limners would find opportunities primarily in the demand for intimate personal mementos and secondly in the requests for copies of conventional-sized work done ‘in little’. While detached portrait miniatura are noted by Vasari as having been done by Clovio, attribution of their introduction apart from the pages of a book into a unique art form usually resides with Jean Clouet on the basis of his extant works ca.1520.[xxii] Clouet’s seven circular paintings of war heroes within the Commentaries on the Gallic War around 1514-19 are considered by many to be the prototype of the miniature portrait.[xxiii]

Small wood panel paintings, usually oil, offered limners a market outside of book production. The implementation of watercolor and gouache in imitative panel painting formats further increased this opportunity with their faster drying times. The artists could achieve the level of desired detail quicker and their output of work grew exponentially.

The Portrait Medallion and Coins: The reintroduction of the medallion in the Renaissance at the hands of Pisanello in 1438 laid an integral foundation for miniatures.[xxiv] Representing royalty and governing officials, they set a clear precedent for portrait miniatures both in form and function. Once the genre moved from the realm of royalty to the domain of the gentry, this influence waned. Miniatores often painted small circular portraits of their patrons in the altar step, predella, which resembled medallions.[xxv] Clouet combined the detached limning and medallion to create the unique art form we know today as miniature portrait painting.[xxvi]

Miniatures adopted their circular form from medallions and they may potentially have been influenced by the prestige associated with round paintings/tondi during the period of the Renaissance. The oval format, popularized by Hilliard, probably resulted from Renaissance Mannerist influences.[xxvii]

Plea Rolls and Coats of Arms: Coombs demonstrates that although the advent of the printing press influenced the detached limning, limners continued to work in the realm of book illumination for wealthy patrons. The King’s Plea Rolls included artist’s portraits of the monarch in the opening letter ‘P’ and some limners continued in the services of the College of Arms.[xxviii]

Socio-religious Influences: While the influence of the Reformation has never been adequately explored in the subject of miniature art, the proximity of timing indicates more than mere coincidence. The Reformation influenced the style of artists and particularly broadened their scope and focus of subject matter, providing the impetus to pursue non-religious, and less controversial, compositional subjects. This shift was especially pivotal among artists who came to specialize in secular portraiture and still life.

Hans Holbein’s relationship with Martin Luther and Erasmus directly entwined his art with the Reformation and the subsequent establishment of the Church of England under Henry VIII in 1529 solidified artistic freedom on the English Continent. The unfettered ability to pursue their inspiration, and fulfill patron taste and demand, shaped the course of artists’ works in creating new motifs independent of religious themes; the culmination of which became natural, realistic, secular portraiture. The miniatores of prior times shifted their efforts into the burgeoning portrait market and specifically the niche of portraits ‘in little’.


The content below has been added by the author as pertinent to the reader with the subject of the specific chapter. If you are an MAA Signature Member and have information relevant for this, or any other chapter, please contact the author.

– “Minium is liable to discoloration in the presence of air pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide. … it may darken when exposed to humidity and light.” [ accessed 1.2012]

– “Samples from Van Gogh’s paintings have been found to contain the lead-based mineral plumbonacrite that reacts with carbon dioxide in the air. They say this mineral is the missing link that may explain why the red lead paint, known as minimum, is turning white.” [ accessed 3.2015]

[i] Bardo. English and Continental Portrait Miniatures: The Latter-Schlesinger Collection, 14; John William Bradley. Illuminated Manuscripts. (Chicago: McClurg, 1909), 3; The Gentleman’s and London Magazine Vol. LV. (Dublin, Exshaw, 1785), 200.

[ii] Bradley. Illuminated Manuscripts., 4-5.

[iii] Knight. Arts and Sciences: or Fourth Division of “The English Cyclopedia” Vol. V., 666-668; Dudley Heath. Miniatures. (London: Methuen, 1905), 6.

[iv] Ibid., 19.

[v] Ibid., 20 

[vi] Propert. The History of Miniature Art., 24-25.

[vii] Foster. Chats on Old Miniatures., 49.

[viii] Heath. Miniatures., 29; E. H. Gombrich. The Story of Art. (Mark Harden’s Artchive, n.d.), <http://artchive/V/van_eyck/ghentopn_text.jpg.html&gt; accessed 6.2009.

[ix] Heath. Miniatures., 35-37.

[x] Ibid., 45.

[xi] Ibid., 80.

[xii] Ibid., 101.

[xiii] Bradley. Illuminated Manuscripts., 3.

[xiv] John William Bradley. The Life and Works of Giorgio Giulio Clovio, Miniaturist, with Notices of His Contemporaries and of the Art of Book Decoration in the 16th Century. (London: Quaritch, 1891), 40 and 125; Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects Vol. V. (London: Bohn, 1852), 449.

[xv] Heath. Miniatures., 48.

[xvi] Bradley. The Life and Works of Giorgio Giulio Clovio, Miniaturist, with Notices of His Contemporaries and of the Art of Book Decoration in the 16th Century, 94-95; Miniatures. Heath, 52.

[xvii] Julia de Wolf Gibbs Addison. The Art of the Pitti Palace. Boston: St. Boltolph Soc., 1912., 302.

[xviii] Paul A. Winckler. Reader in the History of Books and Printing. (Englewood, CO: Information Handling Services, 1978), 149; Bardo. English & Continental Portrait Miniatures: The Latter-Schlesinger Collection., 31.

[xix] Gullick. Painting Popularly Explained 2nd. Ed., 112

[xx] “Artists Pigments.” (Old and Sold, n.d.) (Originally published 1913.) <; accessed 2009.

[xxi] Dudley Heath. “Some Ancestors of Alphonso XIII and Other Miniatures in Oil in the Collection of His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch at Montagu House.” The Connoisseur Vol. 18. (London: Otto, 1907), 3.

[xxii] Propert. The History of Miniature Art., 41; Graham Reynolds. European Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (New York, MET, 1996), 11 and 68.

[xxiii] Wehle. American Miniatures. 8; See also: L. Dimier. “French Painting in the Sixteenth Century.” Trans. Harold Child. (London: Duckworth, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904)

<; accessed 2.2010.

[xxiv] “Byzantium and the Origins of the Renaissance Medal.” Craig Barclay. (, n.d.) <; accessed 2.2010.

[xxv] W. G. Bowdoin. “Miniature Painting.” The Outlook. (1901), 776.

[xxvi] Graham Reynolds. Wallace Collection, Catalogue of Miniatures. (London, 1980), 7; Reynolds. European Miniatures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art., 67; “Philadelphia Exhibit of Miniatures.” The New York Times 10 Nov. 1907.

[xxvii] Bardo. English & Continental Portrait Miniatures: The Latter-Schlesinger Collection., 15-16.

[xxviii] Coombs. “European Visions: American Voices, A Kind of Gentle Painting.”, 83.


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