Page 10, 21st January 1938

21st January 1938
Page 10
Page 10, 21st January 1938 — Did Beauty Decline ?

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Organisations: Manuscript Department
People: Ernest Moss


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Did Beauty Decline ?

Controversy About Illuminated Manuscripts

Did Beauty decline in our English illuminated manuscripts between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, is the question with which The Studio challenges the Catholic Herald critic, Mr. Ernest Moss.

In a review of Canon F. Harrison's English Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century, Mr. Ernest Moss wrote:

" A walk round the manuscript rooms of the British Museum should convince anyone not suffering from unfortunate prohibentia that the beauty, if not the skill, of illuminations, made a fast decline from the end of the thirteenth century into the fourteenth.

" The chief defect of this excellent book of reproductions of illuminations and information about them is that it does not cover enough ground to show people what was really happening to illumination (and to many arts and sciences) at that time. This would not have mattered if the reproductions had been issued separately to be looked at as pictures. But in a book about illumination it matters a lot."

In the Face of Opinion The Studio replied : " Our attention has been drawn to the review of our English Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century by Canon F. Harrison, which appeared in your issue of January 7.

" Apart from the curt dismissal of the contents of the book by your reviewer, there are one or two points to which, as they might be misleading to your readers, perhaps we might be permitted to call attention.

"The first is that one cannot ' walk round ' the Manuscript Rooms at the British Museum, as, to gain any idea of the treasures which the Manuscript Department contains. one must necessarily make application in the Students' Room and study each separately in dreamstances of precaution proper to the great historical and artistic value of the manuscripts then-wives: a ' stroll '—if this is what your reviewer means — round the necessarily few manuscripts shown in the public part of the Museum is palpably not sufficient to come to any conclusion whatsoever upon the evolution of the manuscript front the thirteenth into the fourteenth century—though, if your reviewer adopted this method of investigation, it becomes clear, perhaps, why he should, in the face of all critical opinions (both scholarly and asthetic) arrive at the conclusion that the fourteenth century represented a decline.

"Your reviewer is of course entitled to his own opinion on a question of art (though clearly he is not entitled to suggest that, by walking round ' the Museum, one can form any opinion at all), but he must be so unique in holding it, and the ' unfortunate prohibentia' which he attributes to those holding a different opinion is so widespread among the greatest scholars, that one might well have expected rather more explanation than that which can be contained in a single sentence to be devoted to the grounds of his extremely individual belief."

Not Only Manuscripts

Our reviewer, Ernest Moss, continues:

" The matter obviously cannot be settled here without the sensible evidence. The evidence is not limited to the displayed manuscripts at the British Museum; but they are sufficient to form an a priori judgment and slightly exceed in representative value 24 plates approximately representing the originals. The evidence of a decline in taste from the end of the thirteenth century is not limited to manuscripts but is clearly displayed in ivories, enamels, woodcarvings, stone-carvings, architecture, etc. This is not equivalent to saying that nothing in the fourteenth century is good, nothing in the twelfth bad.

" Scholars are not by reason of their scholarship qualified to judge the beautiful. The beauty of a picture is known before its contents as such are apprehended.

The beauty is inseparable from the sensible and cannot be arrived at by abstraction and discussion; though argument assists the removal of prohibentia.

"I admire the stupendous research in which The Studio must have been involved to arrive validly at the vast generalisation that all critical opinions (' both scholarly and a sthetic') are against me; and I was shocked when an official at the British Museum to whom I confided my vain desire to show that there was a general (not universal) decline in the beauty (not skill) of illuminations from the end of the thirteenth century said: 'That shouldn't be difficult.' But of course it was a woman who spoke."

Illustrations appearing on this page are from British Museum psalters.

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