Flowers by Formula

The Lazy Scribe's Guide to King Réné-Style Borders

by Mistress Yseult de Lacy


Here we see a typical illuminated page from King René's Book of the Heart Possessed by Love, c 1453. Some text, a magnificent miniature, and a charming border of acanthus leaves and flowering stems, interspersed with little gold spiky roundels. Sometimes the text is at the top, sometimes at the bottom, sometimes both. The border colour schemes are predominantly red, blue, green, and gold. At first sight the borders seem incredibly complicated, but on closer examination they are surprisingly simple to construct.


Here is a typical border, with enlargements of some of the flowers.

Border 1


Details 1a & 1b

On first sight, there appear to be four different flower types in Border 1, but there are really only two forms—the lilies and three variants of what I will call "round flowers." These latter have five or six petals, are coloured in the same way, and differ only in how deeply the petals are indented, whether the ends are curved or flat, and the precise details of the white highlights.

The round flowers are all painted using the same formula. The shape has been filled in with medium-density colour, and a circle of a darker shade of this colour placed in the centre. The same darker shade has been used to fill in the end of each petal. Finally, a half-ring of white has been painted under the central circle, and three white stamens may be added, also sprouting from the central circle. And that's it. No complicated shading, essentially flat colour. The differences in the three shapes are i) round-ended petals, shallow indent (1a); ii) bluntish pointy-ended petals, deep indent (1b); and iii) flat-ended petals, deep indent (1a).

Similarly, the front three petals of the lilies (1a) have been painted solid medium blue, and the two back petals a solid darker blue. The same darker blue has been used to shade the bottom of the front petals, extending just a little up the outside of the lowest petal. Finally, a white line has been drawn around the top edge of the front petals. Once again, a very simple technique. 

Here is a diagram to illustrate the steps involved in painting the two types of flowers we have seen so far. The outlines have been drawn in black, to make things clearer;  in actually painting these, they would be in the medium colour.

Here is a second border and enlargements:

Border 2


Details 2a and 2b

In Border 2 we encounter more variants of round flowers, this time with six petals and serrated petal ends (2a), and four uneven petals (2b). Some are coloured in the same manner as the earlier flowers; others are basically an outline in colour with no medium-density infill, just the darker colour in the centre and at the ends of the petals.

2a shows another flower form as well—a pincushion-like design, with five or six single petals rising from a scalloped base much like a strawberry top. Again, there is no shading in these petals; just an outline filled in with solid colour at the tip.

In 2b there is yet another round-flower version—three fat petals and one thin one, some with darker centres/edges, and some without. The ones with darker colour have white half-circles, but no stamens; the others have both half-circles and stamens. We also see "buds" in 2b—three green spikes with a medium-blue oval bisected by the middle spike, and a red version with the area between the spikes almost entirely filled.

Finally, this border introduces strawberries (2a). These are either a dome rising from a scalloped cup of sepals, or a globe with a slightly flattened bottom and turned-back sepals. There is a little real shading in the strawberries, from nearly scarlet at one side to nearly white at the other, giving the illusion of three dimensions. The seeds are simple brown or dark red short lines, which project over the edge of the berry at the top and sides.

Here is the step-by-step diagram for these:


Leaves and Stems

The leaves in these borders are also quite stylized, and come in a relatively small number of shapes: crescent, oval (lanceloate), tear-drop, heart-shaped, and tri-partite.  Although the leaves are usually the same type on individual stems, there do not seem to be fixed relationships between flowers and leaf types, with the exception of strawberries which  usually have tri-partite leaves as they do in nature. 

Stems are thin green fronds, with branches generally on alternate sides.  Sometimes a leaf may spring from the opposite side to a branch;  otherwise, leaves also mostly alternate left and right.   Crescent leaves tend to come in pairs rather than alternating, but  this is not a hard-and-fast rule.   Stems may originate from a small cluster of leaves (circle in Border 2), or have an obvious "cut end,"  slightly widened with the cut face showing (black circles in Border 1).   There may be a small depth of "earth" at the bottom of the border, as in Border 2, from which the plants "grow."  Otherwise, they start from corners and at intervals along the base.  Depending on the manuscript, they may also spring from a vase;  the last border in King René's  book has acanthus-leaved scotch thistles issuing from a fat little footed gilded vase in the centre base (the peculiar olive-green colour in this detail is actually gilding;  unfortunately, it didn't scan very well):

The base colour for both leaves and stems is either a light olive or bluish-green, and the lower half of the leaves is painted in a much darker shade of the base colour.  Alternately, the entire leaf or just one half may be gilded.  There is usually a definite dark line down the centre of the leaf, and the lighter half is sometimes outlined.  Veins are sometimes drawn in, and leaves which are serrated in nature  (strawberries, roses, thistles, holly) are usually serrated, although the leaf shape may not be natural for that plant—see the few green leaves on the thistles at the left.   Note also in this detail that these thistles break the rule for consistency in leaves on a single plant.   The artist really surpassed himself here in creating a hybrid plant;  not only do we have classic acanthus fronds coming off thin green stems, we have both tear-drop and holly-like serrated leaves as well. 

You may have noticed I have used the words "generally," "usually," and "typically" rather a lot.  This is because we can usually(!) find an exception to every rule in illumination,  be it shape, colour, consistency, or whatever.   This is because the illuminators themselves didn't have rule books to look up, just their masters' teaching and the  memories of other manuscripts they themselves had seen.  Otherwise, it was up to their own artistic judgment and imagination.   Good illuminators seem to have travelled quite a lot, and would undoubtedly have made sketches of things they liked in any manuscript they saw (probably even if they weren't supposed to).  Thus styles and techniques dispersed relatively quickly, changing  as new artists added their own deliberate new touches, or simply misremembered what they had seen.

Here are the step-by-step diagrams for leaves and stems.  Note that you will need three shades of green—the base colour, a darker shade for the lower half of the leaf, and an even darker green for the centre line and veins.


These notes are not going to deal with acanthus in any detail, as it will be the subject of another paper.   For now, if you feel brave, try drawing basic stem-and-branch shapes where you want your acanthus to go and then fleshing out the leaves around them (ie,  the stem becomes the central line down the middle of the acanthus leaves).  Otherwise, resort to the good old medieval method of tracing, which is indeed medievalseveral recipes for tracing paper exist. The simplest recipe is to rub olive oil thoroughly into a sheet of good paper and let it dryordinary photocopy paper treated like this makes a beautiful tracing sheet, though you do need to rub it well with a clean paper towel and let it dry for a few hours before using it, to avoid any oil coming off onto the original.

Golden Spiked Roundels

"Heaven forbid there should be blank spaces in my border!"  This seems to have been the working rule of the medieval illuminators, so where they couldn't put a leaf, stem, or flower, they put a dot of gold with a black border and some spikes coming off it.   If you look closely at the roundels in Border1 and Border2, you will see that nearly half have two spikes, nearly half have three, there are a few with none or one, and one with four (in Detail 2asee if you can find it).  Some spikes have their ends looped back, while others are quite straight.  In other borders in the same manuscript there are roundels with five spikes, and the spikes themselves are not merely looped, but wiggly.  You will also see quite a few little inked circles, which have the same space-filling purpose.   Here and there are also flower-like objects which are not attached to stems, with gold roundels as three of their "petals" (red circle in Border 1).   Below are two details showing one of these which has been fully painted, and one which the illuminator seems to have missed.   The painting is quite simpleplain red or blue fill, a white central circle, and white lines at the edges of the petals.  Note that the "flower" has been outlined in black, as though it were itself a roundel.


King René, Book of the Heart Possessed by Love, George Braziller Inc. New York 1980.  ISBN 0-8076-0989-7


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)