Miniature Palnting, a species of painting on a small scale, executed with water colors on vellum, prepared paper, or ivory, or in enamel. The word originated from the ancient practice of writing the initial letters of manuscripts in minium or red lead, for the purpose of distinguishing the commencement of chapters or paragraphs. These rubrics, as they were called, gradually received many fanciful adornments at the hands of the illustrators, who added rich arabesque borders, and finally delicately executed little pictures illustrating the text, to which the general name of miniature was applied. The taste for this species of ornamentation existed at a period considerably anterior to the Christian era. The ancient Egyptians illuminated their papyri with colored hieroglyphics; and from passages in Pliny, Seneca, and other classical authors, the art seems to have been familiar to the Greeks and Romans. The middle ages, however, and especially the period extending from the 8th to the 14th century inclusive, witnessed its most perfect development; and the mediaeval monks in the solitude of their convents found at once an amusement and a pious occupation in embellishing their missals, breviaries, and other sacred volumes.
The illumination of missals was consequently for many ages the chief form in which miniature painting was practised, although, as in the case of fresco and oil paintings, subjects other than Scriptural or sacred were from the outset occasionally selected. The art seems from an early period to have been divided into two branches, the professors of the first being called miniatori or miniature painters, or illuminators of books; and those of the second miniatori calligraji, or calligraphers. " To the first class," says Mrs. Merrifield, "belonged the task of painting Scripture stories, the borders, and the arabesques, and of laying on the gold and ornaments of the manuscripts. The second wrote the whole of the work, and those initial letters, generally drawn with blue or red, full of flourishes and fanciful ornaments, in which the patience of the writer is frequently more to be admired than his genius.1' Sometimes, however, the two branches were practised by the same person, and about the middle of the 14th century the execution of large illuminated initials adorned with various fanciful objects and figures, such as men, animals, birds, and flowers, became a distinct occupation, the ornamentation usually extending in scrolls along the upper and lower margins of the page.
The pigments employed were of the purest quality, and were applied with an admixture of white in the shape of body colors, the vehicle being some glutinous substance sufficiently diluted in water to leave the surface of the vellum dull and lustreless. The Vatican collection of manuscripts contains one of the most ancient specimens of classical calligraphy extant, a Virgil of the 4th or 5th century with 50 miniatures, besides many others of a somewhat later date; and fragments of an illuminated Homer, which may also be ascribed to the 4th or 5th century, are preserved in the Ambrosian library at Milan. The Byzantine artists particularly excelled as illuminators, and their manuscripts exhibit intricate arabesques of mixed foliage and animals, and the richest architectural fancies in the margins, although many of these arc said to be repetitions of Romano-Christian works of the 5th and 6th centuries. The most elaborate exemplar of the school is the Menologium. or calendar executed about A. D. 1000 for the emperor Basil II., and which, notwithstanding one half of it is wanting, contains 430 miniatures on a gold ground, illustrating scenes from the lives of Christ and the saints, the history of the church, etc.
The period extending from the middle of the 11th to the commencement of the 13th century was the richest in the history of the Byzantine school. Afterward the art rapidly deteriorated among them. Under the early Carlovingian kings of France, the transcription and embellishment of manuscripts were greatly encouraged; and the Bibles of Charles the Bald, preserved in the imperial library at Paris, and in the Benedictine monastery of St. Calix-tus in Rome, are admirably illustrated. The English manuscripts are not inferior to the continental, and the benedictional of St. Eth-elwolf, executed in 963-'7 by Godeman, a monk of Hyde abbey, is considered one of the purest specimens of early English art. The celebrated Bedford missal, executed in France for John, duke of Bedford, regent of France under Henry VI., and now in the British museum, is one of the latest and richest specimens of the art of manuscript illumination. Among the most celebrated of the miniatori, who were also equally if not more celebrated in other branches of art, may be mentioned Si-mone Memmi, Giotto, Fra Angelico da Fiesole, Jan van Eyck, Squarcione, Girolamo dai Libri, Hans Memling, and Giulio Clovio. Mending was perhaps the best of all the illuminators; and of the industry of Giulio Clovio a memorable example is extant in his "Office of the Virgin," now in the royal library of Naples, the 28 miniatures of which are said to have occupied him nine years.
With the invention of printing the occupation of the illuminator and calligrapher gradually ceased, although of late years the practice of embellishing books with illuminated borders and fanciful initials has again come into vogue. But modern invention has substituted for the toilsome efforts of the miniatori of the middle ages various rapid processes for printing designs in colors, of which Owen Jones's publications afford some happy illustrations. - The term miniature painting is now applied almost exclusively to small portraits executed on thin sheets of ivory, which, on account of the semi-transparency of its texture, is preferred to any other material. This property of the ivory renders it necessary for the back "to be protected by something perfectly white, as the effect of the painting might be injured by any dark substance showing through. Miniatures on ivory seldom exceed a few square inches in size. In England the art has been cultivated by an eminent line of artists from Holbein downward, embracing such names as Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac and Peter Oliver, Samuel Cooper, Hoskins, Flat-man, Gibson, Cos way, Ross, Newton, Thor-burn, etc, whose works are invaluable for the likenesses they afford of distinguished public characters.
According to Dr. Waagen, "in no department have the English artists attained so high a state of perfection as in this." Under the first empire the French had many excellent miniaturists, including Isabey, who not only painted on ivory portrait pieces containing'many figures, but attempted with success historical subjects; Augustin, Guerin, Saint, Mine, de Mirbel, etc. The most eminent American miniature painter was Malbone, whose works are executed with great delicacy, and after the lapse of many years retain much of their original freshness. Of late years the introduction of colored or retouched photographic likenesses has somewhat interfered with the profession of the miniature painter; but these, owing to their perishable nature, can never wholly supplant portraits on ivory. Photography, regarded simply as an auxiliary to the miniature painter, rather aids than injures him by the data it affords for greater accuracy of drawing and proportions. (See Enamelling.) - See "Original Treatises on the Arts of Painting in Oil, Miniature, Mosaic," etc, edited by Mrs. Merrifield (2 vols., London, 1849).