The Miracles of Our Lord
Henry Noel Humphreys, 1810-79, editor and illuminator
17.5 x 12.1 cm.
Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 8
Twelve of Christ's miracles as recorded in the New Testament are ornamented by Henry Noel Humphreys in this, his second papier-mâché-bound illuminated book. [continued below]
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The Ellen K. Morris Collection, which retains copyright
Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith
Six of the miracles are represented in roundels on the cover designed by Humphreys: the miraculous draught of fishes, the changing of water into wine, Jesus and Peter walking on the water, the woman cured of eighteen years' infirmity, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the blind man restored to sight. Humphreys's binding is based on the design of the British Museum's Psalter of Queen Melisende (see cat. 4).
The nineteenth century was, to a great degree, an age of faith and an age of historicism. Recognizing these parallel tendencies, Humphreys created in The Miracles a book that appealed to both interests and which, though sometimes historically and iconographically inaccurate, was visually exciting. On the page depicting the water being turned to wine, St. Paul, after an engraving by Martin Schongauer, is shown with a book and a sword, which was the instrument of his martyrdom. Humphreys indicated the source for the figure and his understanding of the symbols in an appended section titled "Descriptive Index." His suggestion that Paul is holding the Gospels is confusing, since Paul was author of the section of the New Testament known as the Epistles.
Under his appended "Remarks of the Illuminator" Humphreys explained his sincere interest in Christian symbolism, which he says had been referred to as "Romanism" and viewed with either "indifference or hostility." As a justification for studying this branch of art Humphreys cited Dr. Arnold's praise of the elevating and educative quality of the frescoes in the early Christian church of St. Stefano Rotondo in Rome. Arnold, father of Matthew Arnold, was a Church of England clergyman and headmaster of Rugby School until his death in 1842. Humphreys seems to be turning to Arnold's writings for defense against any suspicions that he was attached to the Roman Catholic Church.
Humphreys as an artist displays an intuitive understanding of Gothic precedent mixed with Renaissance pictorialism. Around the text pages he arranged a trellis-like structure with vines, flowers, and leaves which on some pages appears as an arbor and on others takes on the character of a Gothic doorway complete with slender jamb figures, framing a larger niche that often holds a figure taken from a Renaissance master. The architectural nature of this device is an example of Humphreys's sensitivity to the relationship between medieval book and building arts. Page openings are coordinated here in a manner similar to Humphreys's Parables (cat. 7), with pairs of pages in cool colors alternating with pages done in warm colors, using as many as six colors, plus black and white. Color is also found in the miniatures, illuminated initial letters, and line endings which ornament the Gothic script text.
Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Bibliomania: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.
Humphreys, Henry Noel. The Miracles of Our Lord. London: Longmans & Co., 1848.
McLean, Ruari. Victorian Book Design and Colour Printing. 2nd edition. [London]: Faber & Faber, .
Last modified 18 December 2013