Matthew Paris was an English historian and illuminator. One of the few named medieval artists to whom a substantial body of work can be attributed with some certainty, Paris spent his career at St Albans, England. In 1217 he made his profession as a monk, and c. 1235 succeeded Roger of Wendover as the Abbey's historian. His interests were wide, including cartography, heraldry, and cosmography, but his main achievement consists of the chronicles and lives of the saints which he both wrote and illustrated. He was probably also involved in practical administrative duties, in connection with which he visited Norway from 1248 to 1249.
Although a monk, Paris had close contact with the lay nobility, including the court at Westminster. Richard Earl of Cornwall (brother of Henry III, whom he also knew) was an important source of information about events described in the chronicles. The inferred format of his saints' lives, with continuous bands of illustration placed above the Anglo-Norman French texts, indicates that they were intended for nobility like the Cornwalls. A note in the Life of St Alban (Trinity College Library, Dublin) refers to another saint's life “which I translated and illustrated and which the lady countess of Cornwall may keep till Whitsuntide”.
Most of his illustrations are tinted drawings—a technique often favored by English medieval artists—and Paris was possibly familiar with Anglo-Saxon illustration in this medium. Although his work is accomplished, it is not especially advanced in style. The weight and the firm outlines of the figures in the Life of St Alban (c. 1240), probably his earliest surviving work, indicate a considerable debt to the transitional style of c. 1200. In the scene of Aracle's conversion, however, the agile poses of the soldier's attackers and the slender proportions of the saint are characteristic of early Gothic art. The grotesque faces reveal Paris' interest in striking characterization.
A similar concern with dramatic incident is found in the many marginal drawings of the Chronica Maiora (1241 - 51; Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge) where unusual, often contemporary subjects are depicted in witty and sharply observed compositions. These freshlly executed scenes are frequently new inventions. Typical in its lively, anecdotal quality is the battle between William Mareschall and Baldwin of Guisnes, in which Baldwin tumbles from his mount, casually watched by a passing figure leading two horses.
A drawing of the Virgin and Child from the Historia Anglorum (British Library, London), with the artist himself at the Virgin's feet, is probably among his last works (1250 - 5). The delicate faces and the tender relationship between mother and child are characteristic of the developed Gothic style. Although the seated figure still has considerable weight, her rippling drapery has an elegance commonly found in the art of the mid 13th century.
Several manuscripts with illustrations in the St Albans style, though not by Paris himself, show his influence, while the pictures in a copy of his Life of St Edward (c. 1255; University Library, Cambridge), in the style of the Westminster Court School, were probably based on his original.
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