Master of Death

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In El Hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers, 1964), Jorge Luis Borges wrote,

A man sets himself the task of drawing the world.

As the years pass, he fills the empty space with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, houses, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Just before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.

In an effort to trace the image of Pierre Remiet and his world, Camille, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago, spent twelve years searching the libraries of Europe and America for the illustrations of this fourteenth century Parisian illuminator. The task was complicated by the fact that illuminators, unlike scribes, rarely put their names to their work, though they found other means to note their presence. The ramier is a pigeon or dove. Punning on his name, Remiet sometimes painted a bird in the margin of the manuscripts he decorated. Also characteristic of Remiet is the outstretched corpse and ragged tree. These two images first appear in Remiet’s illustrations for Eustache Deschamps’ Lay de la fragilité humaine in a manuscript begun about 1380 and presented to King Charles VI of France in 1383.

Such images are called histoires, and Camille uses them to reconstruct the history of the artist, of fourteenth century manuscripts, and of the age. Each chapter begins with a fictional recreation of part of Remiet’s last day of life. Richly textured and hauntingly written, these passages reveal a true novelistic gift. In a sense, Camille’s entire book may be fiction, since the Pierre Remiet that Camille discusses may be more than one person. A Pierre Remiet is listed in a 1428 property tax register and is mentioned in a 1368 letter patent as a master, meaning that by that date he had completed his apprenticeship. Thus, he would have been born about 1348 and have lived at least to the age of eighty in a period when life expectancy was about half that. Still, the physician Guillaume de Harcigny, born in 1300, lived until 1393 and was practicing at the age of ninety-two. The existence of Pierre Remiet is largely unimportant, since the illustrations and the world they reflect are the focus of the study.

In his first chapter, Camille considers the training of Remiet, and by extension any fourteenth century illuminator. By this time, the primary source of manuscripts was no longer the monastic scriptorium but rather the lay workshop. Remiet would have been apprenticed about the age of eight, perhaps to the Boqueteaux Master, so named for his tendency to draw trees that look like mushrooms. Remiet’s trees exhibit a similar trait, though he could have developed the habit independently or relied on models without ever meeting the Boqueteaux Master. Since illumination was regarded as a mechanical art, Remiet would not have been taught Latin, though he would have learned to read French. In a manuscript of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlegrinages (completed April 29, 1393) the bookseller Oudin de Cavarnay wrote the instruction, “Remiet ne faites rien” (Remiet, don’t do anything), indicating that Remiet could read.

The instruction also suggests that Remiet was copying his illustrations from another manuscript, a common practice, and that Oudin intended to deviate from that program here, though in the event the space remained blank. This copying did not suggest that Remiet was an inferior artist. Rather, it demonstrates the medieval reverence for authority. Remiet’s frontispiece to the Pèlegrinage de vie humaine shows the author, Guillaume de Deguileville, reading an old text, not creating a new one. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath announces her antinomianism by declaring in her prologue that she values experience over authority, a clear rejection of the scholastic ethos of the period. The intention of the apprentice system was not just to train young artisans but to teach them to work in the manner of their master. Remiet would have followed the practice of his teacher from the way pigment was ground to the manner it was applied to the parchment. Even the use of color was governed by convention. Saints’ days in the calendars of service books were marked in red—hence the phrase “red-letter day”—and the major holy days were highlighted in gold. Saints’ robes were invariably colored red or blue, the most stable pigments in the illuminator’s palette. Saints’ bodies were supposedly exempt from corruption, and in creating their images the artist tried to provide that same immutability.

Remiet would not have been expected to...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)