Medieval book illustrations

Those that knew me as a kid know that I really liked books when I was a child. Most children seem to like the illustrations, but I usually liked the words and the stories more than the pictures. In fact sometimes the pictures annoyed me because sometimes they spoiled the image I had in my head of how the character looked like or how things in the book would look. Most grown up recognize this from when you go and watch a movie based on a book. Most are worried that the movie makers will get it wrong and cast the wrong actors to play our favorite characters or that the landscape or costumes are nothing like what we imagined.

Nowadays I’m more interested in book illustration especially old ones. They say we have a revival of interest for illustrations at the moment, but no time in history the value of book illustrations was as high as in medieval times. Nowadays a couple of people would claim that there bible is among there most prized possessions, but that is almost always figuratively speaking. But in medieval times there existed extremely costly Book of Hours-books that were hand-written, custom-designed and made with exclusive materials like gold and precious stones.  Because of that I was really exited to find two illuminated illustrations about Niobe from the 15th century.

niobe 128

15th century, Paris, national library, French translation of Ovid’s metamorphoses, miniature illustration, Apollo shooting two niobids.

 Because the artist had a limited space to work with he choose to only depict Apollo 
killing one son and one daughter instead of depicting all 14 children and Diana that 
in most stories kills the daughters. 

niobe 130

early 15th century,London British library, the manuscript of De Claris Mulieribus Boccacio.

This miniature shows the bodies of Niobe’s children (again one of each representing the 14 children of Niobe) and her husband Amphion. The white square at Niobe’s feet is a block of stone forecasting Niobe’s own fate (petrification). To read more about what happened to Niobe: Niobe turned to stone

niobe 131

Wood-cut engraving commissioned by Lucantonio Giunta, 1497.

niobe 132

Close-up wood-cut engraving, 1497.

This woodcut engraving from 1497 doesn’t look so sophisticated even though it came after the illuminated illustration. It tries to show action and reaction. Left we see Niobe telling the Thebans not to worship Leto and right we see the revenge from Apollo and Diana on Niobe’s children.

 Wood-cut engraving was a common technique in the 15th and
 16th century in Europe but it declined in the 17th  when they started
to use more complicated techniques to achieve more sophisticated 

The reason that it doesn’t look very good is that it looks a bit simple, almost naive, like a child has drawn it instead of a professional artist. One reason could be that the artist wanted to make sure to make it easy for his audience to interpret the scene. In that sense it isn’t that different from having a really big Eiffel-tower on a postcard from France or having a movie about the Roman empire where all actors miraculously speak English instead of Roman with each other. Pragmatism before realism.This is the oldest illustration i could find of Apollo and Diana attacking from a cloud.

niobe 200

Hans Holbein the Younger, 1515.

niobe 220

Engraving – Hans Holbein image known as ‘Niobe turning to stone as Apollo kills her sons’ from ”Moriae Encomium” (”The Praise of Folly” or ”L’Eloge de la Folie”) 1515




niobe 202

Print Italian 1526

 Here you can see the name of Niobe spelled backwards so that it would be printed corrected.
salutat vos quae te ad lectum 🙂, Hilde


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