When the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt was rediscovered in the 19th century it quickly became seen as one of the most fascinating works from the Middle Ages. Who was this person Villard de Honnecourt and why did he create this book of images?
Besides the information Villard gives us in the book, we don’t know anything else about him. He lived in the thirteenth-century in northern France, and he tells us that he travelled to different countries, including Hungary. Historians initially believed Villard de Honnecourt was an architect, but that seems very unlikely now. One theory suggests that he was a carpenter. In any case, Villard created this sketchbook of 33 sheets of parchment – the work originally had several more pages, but they have gone missing – as a guide, either for himself or for others in his line of work.
There are over 250 images in Villard’s sketchbook – people, animals, objects and buildings. Villard was a good artist, and he seems to have drawn many things from first hand observation. Here are ten pages from the sketchbook that reveal the variety and beauty of this work.
Folio 1v: The Twelve Apostles
Villard wrote on this page: Here you will find the images of the the Twelve Apostles, sitting. Villard de Honnecourt greets you and begs all who use the devices found in this book to pray for his soul and remember him. For in this book will be found sound advice on the virtues of masonry and the uses of carpentry. You will find strong help in drawing figures according to the lessons taught by the art of geometry.
Besides the Twelve Apostles, Villard also had drawn a monk, a hooded woman and another woman doing a somersault.
Folio 4v: The Church Triumphant
Villard’s inscription reads: Often have experts striven to make a wheel turn of its own accord. Here is a way to do it with an uneven number of mallets and with quicksilver.
Another person has also wrote: I say Amen.
Folio 6v: A Clock Tower
Villard’s inscription reads: This is a clock tower. Whoever wishes to build a clock tower should study this one that I once saw. The first story is square, with four small gables. The second story has eight panels and a roof, and above that four smaller gables with a broad space between each. The topmost story is square, with four gables and an eight-sided rood. Here is a picture of it.
Villard also included a dragon shaped like a S to this page.
Folio 7v: Animals and a Labyrinth
In this page you can find a cat, dog, fly, dragonfly, a grasshopper and a type of crayfish. There is also a type of maze known as a labyrinth.
Folio 14r: A Lord and Lady
Folio 14v: Wrestlers and church plans
Besides drawing a pair of men wrestling, Villard includes a pair of plans for church buildings. Underneath the one on the right, he writes: This is the plan of the apse and the choir of our Lady of Cambrai as it now rising from the ground. Elsewhere in this book you will see the inner and outer elevations, as well as the design of the chapels, the walls and the flying buttresses.
However, the sketchbook does not have any other surviving pages with images of this church.
Folio 18v: Geometric Figures
This page includes images of five human faces, a left hand, a tower, a sheep, an eagle, a greyhound, two ostriches, and the head of a horse. Villard writes: Here begins the method of representation as taught by the art of geometry, to facilitate work. Elsewhere you will find the method of masonry.
Folio 24r: The Lion and the Porcupine
Underneath Leo it reads: Here is a lion seen from the front. Please remember that he was drawn from life.
The other inscription near the bottom of the page reads: This is a porcupine, a little beast that shoots its quills when aroused.
Folio 31v: Rheims Cathedral
Villard included six pages devoted to images of Rheims Cathedral. On this page he writes: Here are the elevations of the Church of Rheims and the inner and outer walls. The first entablatures of the side-aisles must be crenelated so that there may be a passageway before the roof. The inner galleries are at the level of this roof. Above these vaults and entablatures we find other passageways which allow circulation in front of the window sills. The last entablature must have crenelations to permit passage before the roof. Here is the model of all the elevations.
Villard’s Sketchbook has been digitized and is online through the Bibliotheque Nationale de France – click here to view it.
The English translation of Villard’s notes can be found in The Medieval Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, edited by Theodore Bowie
You can learn more about Villard de Honnecourt: