Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Heracles Papyrus

Manuscript illumination, in the broadest sense, covers the decoration or illustration of any written text. The practice started with the Egyptians, who would illustrate portions of The Book of the Dead that would be buried with mummies. One can assume that they illustrated other texts, but so few of those survive it is hard to tell. They certainly would have had to have illustrations in geometry texts. The oldest surviving illustrated text is in fact not from The Book of the Dead, but of a play written to celebrate the accession of Pharaoh Senusret I. It dates to about 1980 BC. Surely other illustrated texts existed.

The Greeks seemed to have learned the practice from the Egyptians. It is significant that there is no evidence of the Greeks illustrating texts before the conquests of Alexander. The Greeks used what Kurt Weitzmann called the "papyrus style", which the Egyptians also used. Since the texts were written on scrolls, heavy paint could not be applied, like it can be to flat pages, as the repeated rolling would cause it to flake off. Instead quick pen and ink drawings were inserted into the columns of text. Pictured here is a papyrus fragment known as the Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331) . It tells a portion of the tale of the Twelve Labors of Heracles (or Hercules, if you're feeling Roman), specifically that of the Nemean Lion. Three simple drawings of are inserted into the text columns illustrating the story. Perhaps the drawings were inserted to help a reader quickly find his place in the text, or perhaps because people like pictures. This fragment dates to 3rd century AD, and is one of the few fragments from the classical period illustrating a literary text. Because so few fragments survive, it is impossible to tell if scrolls existed with a higher quality of illustration.

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