JORIS HÕFNAGEL(1542 -1601) was one of the last Flemish manuscript illuminators and one of the first artists to work in the genre of still JORISÕlife. In addition to book illumination, Höfnagel made topographical drawings, maps and oil paintings on panel. The son of wealthy merchants and better educated than most 16th-century artists, he also wrote Latin poetry, mastered several languages, played a variety of musical instruments. Höfnagel also participated in the art market, were he sold drawings and illuminations.

After he published a successful six-volume atlas based on his tracels in England, France and Spain, Höfnagel was appointed court artist by Rudolph II (Holy Roman Emperor between 1576 and 1612). Rudolph greatly valued learning and the arts and his court in Prague was distinguished by the presences of artists and scientists, whose interactions reciprocally influenced their work. Rudolph was a collector and his Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, reflected his interests in art and science. Among the rare minerals, oddly-shaped mollusks, Roman cameos, engraved maps and other “wonders” on display in his gallery was a compendium of decorative scripts entitled the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta, produced 30 years earlier by the master calligrapher, Georg Bocskay. In 1590, Rudolph instructed Höfnagel to decorate the margins of each page. Höfnagel knew that in the pictorial hierarchy of an illuminated page, the marginal decoration had a lower status than the figural and narrative scenes at center, and that repetitive border decorations were usually assigned to apprentices or less accomplished artists, the master artist contributing the main image. To assert his status as master artist, Höfnagel turned the hierarchy on its head, filling the margins with large, colorful, impeccably-executed tromps-l’oeil images of flowers, fruits and insects, all observed from nature, a tour de force with which the scripts at center cannot complete. Höfnagel also chose the species and varietals, and then arranged them on the page in ways that mimic or interact with the shapes, sizes and weights of the scripts above. The emphasis on empiricism and taxonomy seen throughout the images shows that at Rudolph’s court, the visual arts and science were not viewed as opposites, as they are today, but were equally involved in the gathering and dissemination of knowledge.

Since 1983, the Mira Calligraphiae Monumenta has been in the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), where is It is the number one most-requested work in the manuscripts collection


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