Master of Death Essay - Critical Essays

Michael Camille

Master of Death

Michael Camille, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago and author of two other volumes about medieval manuscripts, devoted more than twelve years to locating the work of Remiet. One goal of this project was to identify and analyze the many illustrations of this prolific artist. At the same time, Camille sought to use these pictures, many of which depict death, to bring the fourteenth century to life.

Remiet was not a great artist, but his very ordinariness makes him an excellent representative of his craft and his age. Nowhere is he more so than in his concern with death. Born in 1348, the year that the Black Death first reached France, he would have experienced eighteen returns of the plague by 1400. While portraying death repeatedly, Remiet rarely showed disease. His lepers are lesionless because of the belief that sickness could be transferred through sight.

Like virtually all of his contemporaries, Remiet would have followed pattern books, but he added personal touches, such as his use of yellow and green washes to show the vileness of the human body. Such colors, which were unstable as well as regarded as ugly, were never used for saints’ robes, invariably painted in blues and reds, the most enduring hues in the illuminator’s palette. Camille discusses the cost of these pigments in his analysis of the economics of manuscript-making. The final products were expensive, and all of Remiet’s patrons were rich; but he himself supplemented his income by painting panels for Louis d’Orleans’ chapel.

Supplementing the text are 191 illustrations, forty-five of these in color. As in the manuscripts they depict, word and image here combine to create a detailed picture of the medieval world.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXXIV, October, 1996, p. 264.

Commonweal. CXXIII, October 25, 1996, p. 25.

History Today. XLVI, April, 1996, p. 52.

The Times Higher Education Supplement. July 5, 1996, p. 21.

The Village Voice. May 7, 1996, p. 6.