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Saturday, 28 June 2014

The meaning of miniature

The first miniatures were created back in the days of hand-written books, when miniaturisation and illumination went together. Of course, these days, those illuminated manuscripts which have survived are given low levels of illumination, because that word has changed meaning.

When they were first illuminated, the manuscripts had light added to them, when the monks in the scriptorium used colour to make the manuscript more interesting and more beautiful.

If they were illuminated now, the manuscripts would slowly be damaged by the light, until they faded away, so illuminated manuscripts are never illuminated now. We keep them in the dark to preserve the illuminations in the original sense, but illumination is not the only word that has changed.

The word 'manuscript' has changed as well. Originally, it meant 'hand-written', but now an author's work, fresh off the laser printer hooked up to the computer, is also referred to as a manuscript, but back to our monks, scrivening away on vellum, and their occasional miniatures.

Sometimes, the monks might be making an almanac, featuring red letter days, special feast day that were indicated in red. In the Church of England, red letter days came to be those days on which the Book of Common Prayer includes a collect, an epistle and a gospel for that day — but by then, the Book of Common Prayer was printed, not written by hand.

The use of red for special matters was nothing new: to the Romans, an ordinance or law was called a rubric, because it was written with vermilion (rubrica), unlike Rome's praetorian edicts and rules of court. In England, the term 'rubric' came to mean those liturgical directions and titles printed in red, and we find Milton writing in Paradise Regained:
No date prefix'd
Directs me in the starry rubric set.
Once again, though, we have strayed into the era of printing. Back in the time before the printing press and movable type, the monks used a special pigment called minium to make the red letters of the rubrics. This word actually had two meanings: it could be vermilion, mercuric sulfide, or it could be red lead, an oxide of lead written Pb3O4 by the chemists. They also used minium to add small drawings to the manuscript.

So when a monk miniated a manuscript, he wrote on it or painted around its borders with minium, and the result was a miniature. Today, we think a miniature is just a small version of something, perhaps because it sounded like other words, including minor and minimum, but by 1716, painting 'in miniature' meant creating a very small painting, often on ivory or vellum, and by the time Napoleon was defeated, the term meant on a small scale — very much the meaning we would understand today.

You could also miniature something when you embellished it with miniature portraits, but sadly, the day of the miniator was closing, for once photography took off, a major part of the miniator's business went west.

Now people could pop into a studio, sit uncomfortably still for a few minutes, and then order as many prints as they wanted.

Oddly enough, there is another mini word with a link to lead. The MiniƩ ball, a type of bullet which expanded in a rifle barrel to make a tighter fit, and named after a captain of that name in the French army in 1853. The bullet went faster as a result, and made a hole in the target which was far from miniature in size, though it would undoubtedly have been miniature in colour.

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