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

Chapter 1: Developmental Etymology

Modern Masters of Miniature Art in America book

Developmental Etymology

The introduction of the term miniature must be placed contextually in time with comparisons to synonyms and other potential nomenclature to establish why this particular term managed to survive the struggle of evolutionary development to remain a viable description. Research is compounded by the fact that the initial usage of these terms predates the development of dictionaries by decades.[i]— The percentage to which the term miniature reflects its historical origins will be made clear as the reader follows the progression of the applied meanings of the word. A variety of terms are associated with miniature but ultimately scholars have focused on minium as the primary origin. It is imperative to note that this focus is on the development of miniature as a term more than a description or perceived meaning of the actual physical object. Among other terms of relative importance to the contribution to the meaning are:

· Limn, Limne, Limning (English ca. the 1200s): Derived from limnen/luminen, to illuminate, and means to represent by painting or drawing both within manuscripts and as separate works of art.[ii] These terms became associated with reduced scale and small size through equation with ‘in little’ and the restrictive functions of limnings. While some would restrict the meaning to only specific techniques in watercolor, sufficient scholars and the oeuvre of work demonstrate that the more general sense of ‘in little’ is more accurate with a range of media and surfaces over time.[iii] To limn, by the 16th century, referred to special ways of working separate and distinct from conventional art.[iv] This final evolved form is synonymous with miniature art today.[v]

· Lytel, Littell, Little (English ca. 900s): Used in reference with limning to mean small in the sense of reduced scale and transferred the meaning of small size through common understanding. Littell is often isolated by scholars to distinguish small oil paintings versus watercolor miniatures but this seems a stretch for convenience. Such limited use applies only to a fraction of the timeline. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer used the term in the modern sense of small as early as the 1300s and Nicholas Hilliard uses the terms little, lytel and small repeatedly with the same sense in his 1598 treatise on limning. A 1636 English document gave instructions that contrasted a picture in little with one ‘at length’ and Samuel Pepys, author of a 17th-century diary clearly uses the term as equal in our present sense of a miniature by the year 1668.[vi] Curiously, hardly any attention is paid to the etymology of the oft used phrase ‘in little’ to describe artworks both as an adjective and a noun. The phrase is recognized as being synonymous with limning and later miniature. The Old English term lytel used in the genre’s context was equated with small, or diminutive in size and scale, with roots in manuscript illumination and small separate paintings.

· Minio (Latin): The color red.

· Minium (Latin): Red lead pigment.

· Miniare, Miniate (Latin) Miniato (Italian): To color red. Miniáre (French): Means to paint in miniature, describe minutely.

· Miniatura (Latin): This word is the combination of ura ‘to render with’ and minium. The initial meaning was limited to rendering with minium but gradually became associated with the decoration and then specifically, with the pictorial imagery. Interestingly, the Italian plural of miniatura is miniature. In Florio’s 1598 Italian/English dictionary miniatura is defined as a limning and by 1627 the relationship was solidified in Edward Norgate’s treatise: Miniatura or the Arte of Limning.[vii]

· Miniator, Illuminatore/Miniatore, Miniatori (Italian): Initially one who simply miniated the manuscript but later restricted to those who created the pictorial miniatura. Their counterparts were the miniatori caligrafi who wrote by hand the text of the books and additionally drew the initial large letters often embellished with minium or gold. Manuscripts still lacking the illustrative artwork emphasize that early on being a miniatore was perceived as being part of a specialized branch of the arts. Occasionally an individual could be skilled at both aspects of the art of manuscript production.[viii]

· Inlūmināre (Latin): To embellish. Literally to light up.

· Lūmināre (Latin) Miniare (Italian) Limnen, Luminen (English ca. 1300s) Enlumine, Enluminer, Luminer (French): To illuminate, adorn. By the 13th century, limning assumed the meaning in England for these terms and became the preferred descriptive term for the decorative art of illumination.[ix]

· Minor, Mini, Minus (Latin ca. the 1200s): Denotes small in size or nature. These terms are often blamed for the etymological confusion that associated the term miniature with small size. This misunderstanding is presumed to have been auditory in nature since written evidence is glaringly absent.[x] Scholar Leo Schidlof considered minus a more sensible origin for miniature due to the lack, or subordination, of minium in many manuscripts and the principle nature of miniatures as small dimensioned representations of smaller than nature subjects.[xi]

Miniature (Italian ca. the 1200s): The term is used in reference to the writing and illustration of manuscripts. Initially, it was synonymous to some degree with other terms used to denote either the art of illumination or the manuscripts themselves.[xii] Miniature (English ca. the late 1500s): By 1616, this term had cemented its associations with small proportions and littleness although limning and in little were still the preferred descriptive terms associated with the specific art.[xiii] Mignature (French): A small scale painting of particular refinement with the term coming from mignard and mignon meaning delicate, small scale. The influence of minion, derived from mignon but meaning a favorite or darling, may have also influenced the meaning of mignature/miniature due to the affections and high estimation placed upon these sentimental little paintings. Mignature was defined as a sort of painting in small ca. 1688.[xiv] By 1694, mignature was considered a type of painting done with petit points [small marks as in pointillage]. Interestingly, by this time the English miniature is regularly used in the French text: “travailler in miniature” [work in miniature] and “peindre in miniature” [to paint in miniature] with this latter phrase being noted/contrasted with working “en huile [oil], en detrempe [gouache], en grand [large ]”.[xv] Miniature is also used in lieu of mignature in the 1681 Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amerique.[xvi] By 1715 miniature/mignature was primarily associated with a particular technique of painting in watercolors.[xvii] Despite assertions that etymological errors are based upon confusions with the Latin mini, minor and minus, it is more probable the notion of littleness came from the French mignature/mignon as well as the English, lytel/little.[xviii]

[i] Some of the earliest dictionaries were:

– 1538: Sir Thomas Elyot’s Latin/English “Wordbook”

– 1598: Florio’s Italian/English “A Worlde of Wordes”

– 1604: Robert Cawdrey’s “A Table Alphabeticall Of Hard Usual English Words”

– 1611: Randle  Cotgrave’s French/English “A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues”

[ii] Coombs. “From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature.”

[iii] Susan E. Strickler and Marianne E. Gibson. American Portrait Miniatures: The Worcester Art Museum Collection. (Worcester: WAM, 1989), 13; Dale T. Johnson and Carol Aiken. American Portrait Miniatures in the Manney Collection. (New York: MET, 1990), 14; Daphne Foskett. Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide. (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1987), 17; John Malam. The Shakespeare Marriage Picture. (London: Simpkin, 1873), 17.

[iv] Katherine Coombs. “European Visions: American Voices, A Kind of Gentle Painting.”, 81.

[v] Coombs. “From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature.”

[vi] Erica E. Hirshler. “Copley in Miniature”, John Singleton Copley in America. (New York: MET, 1995), 119; “Diary of Samuel Pepys. Monday, Feb, 24 1662.” ( n.d.) n. pag. Web. <; access 2009.

[vii] Florio’s 1598 Italian/English Dictionary: A World of Words. Ed. Greg Lindahl. n.p.: n.d. <; accessed 2.2010; Coombs. “European Visions: American Voices, A Kind of Gentle Painting.”, 78.

[viii] Thomas John Gullick. Painting Popularly Explained 2nd. Ed. (London: Lockwood, 1864), 101-102; See Original treatises by Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, 1849.

[ix] Coombs. “From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature.”

[x] William Henry Fox Talbot. English Etymologies. (London: Murray, 1847), 455.

[xi] Bardo. English & Continental Portrait Miniatures: The Latter-Schlesinger Collection., 13. (quoting from The Miniature in Europe. Leo Schidlof, 1964, I, 1.)

[xii] Coombs. “From Limning to Miniature: The Etymology of the Portrait Miniature.”

[xiii] John Bullokar. An English Expositor (1616) 12th Ed. (London, 1719), n. pag. (miniature)

[xiv] Oxford Journals. Notes and Queries Third Series. Vol. VII. William Bates. (London: Office, 1865), 477.

[xv] Académie Française. The Dictionnaire de l’Académie Françoise, Dédié au Roy Tome Second M-Z. Paris, 1694., 72, 208, 268, 592.

[xvi] César de Rochefort. Histoire Naturelle et Morale des Iles Antilles de l’Amerique. (Rotterdam: Reinier Leers, 1681), 400.

[xvii] Abel Boyer. The Royal Dictionary Abridged, in Two Parts. (London, 1715), n. pag. (miniature)

[xviii] John William Bradley. Historical Introduction to the Collection of Illuminated Letters and Borders in the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum. (London: Eyre, 1901), 9; Talbot. English Etymologies., 455.


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