A term applied to two different kinds of pictures: first, representational images (as distinct from decorative motifs) in illuminated manuscripts; and secondly, very small independent paintings, particularly portraits that can be held in the hand or worn as a piece of jewellery. The word derives from the Latin minium, the red lead used to emphasize initial letters in manuscripts, decorated by the miniator. However, on account of a mistaken etymology, the word has become connected with ‘minute’ (small). What we today call a ‘miniature’ was called historia in the Middle Ages and the portraits painted by Hilliard and his contemporaries were named ‘limnings’ or ‘pictures in little’ by the Elizabethans. They were usually painted in watercolour on vellum (see parchment), or occasionally on ivory or card, and in the 17th and 18th centuries there was a vogue for miniatures done in an enamelling technique. The portrait miniature developed from a fusion of the traditions of medieval illumination and the Renaissance medal and perhaps originated in France in the 1520s. The first great exponent was Holbein, who stands at the head of the renowned English tradition in the art. Miniature painting continued to flourish (in England and elsewhere) until the mid-19th century, when photography virtually killed it as a serious art form.
Subjects: Art — Bibliography.