Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Durham Cathedral Library, MS A II 10

First a little bit about the "name" of this manuscript. If you are already familiar with how shelfmarks work, you can skip to the next paragraph. Many manuscripts are famous and have names that are well known outside of the realm of medievalists, the Book of Kells for example. Others are more obscure, but are well known to medievalists, the Quedlinburg Itala or the Vatican Virgil, for example. Others may have names that uniquely identify them, but are not well known to anyone other than a specialist. Most manuscripts don't have names, though, and are identified only by shelfmarks. Shelfmarks are the cataloging labels given to each manuscript by the institution that holds it. Each institution makes its own rules as to how to assign shelfmarks. Some just number them; MS 1, MS 2, etc. Others will sort by their manuscripts into collections, and number each collection. The collections may be sorted by language, or manuscript type, or by donor. Some large institutions might have several different types of collections. In any case, the full shelfmark will identify a manuscript precisely. (Some institutions that only hold a few manuscripts, or perhaps only one, don't use shelfmarks at all.) These shelfmarks are a kind of secret passwords for medievalists. You stand a much better chance of getting an institution to let you look at a manuscript if you know its shelfmark. Some institutions, rather than simply numbering the manuscript, use a more complicated scheme, that gives you the precise location of the manuscript. To do this you must identify the bookcase a manuscript is in, the shelf of the bookcase, and the position of the manuscript on the shelf. This is what Durham Cathedral does. This manuscript is A II 10. This translates to the first bookcase (A), the second shelf (II), and the tenth manuscript (10).

This manuscript is a fragment of an early Insular gospel book. It is usually known only by the its shelfmark because there are at least two other fragmentary Insular gospel books at Durham Cathedral (MSS A II 16, and A II 17). MS A II 17 is sometimes called the "Durham Gospels". Kirsten Ataoguz at Early Medieval Art calls this the "Earlier Durham Gospels" and A II 17 the later Durham Gospels.

This manuscript is earliest in a sequence of magnificently decorated gospel books that stretches to the Book of Kells and beyond. This manuscript dates to the early 7th century and is not much younger than the Cathach of St. Columba. The surviving fragments contain two important pieces of decoration, on facing pages. Folio 3v* (see illustration above) contains the end of the the Gospel of Matthew. The text is in the left hand column, the other column contains a frame shaped like three capital letter "Ds" stacked one on top of the other. Each frame is decorated with a knot work pattern, and each frame has a different pattern. (Dr. Ataoguz suggests having students describe these patterns as an exercise in observation and description. Other than noting that the lower 'D' is decorated with a traditional three strand braid, I would find this very difficult.) The triangular spaces between, above and below the "D" frames are filled with larger, looser triangular knots. Inside the frames are written the explicit** to Matthew, the incipit** to the Gospel of Mark, and the Pater Noster, or Lord's Prayer, in Greek, but written in Latin letters. Facing this page is the opening page to the Gospel of Mark. (see illustration at right.) It starts with a large decorated initial. This initial takes the first three letters of the the opening word "Initium" and fuses them into a large monogram. The monogram is shorter on the right side than it is on the left. Each subsequent letter in the opening word is smaller than the preceding letter. This diminuation of letters was first seen in the Cathach. A manuscript of Jerome at Bobbio from the early 7th century also contains an "INI" monogram that is very similar in form to this monogram (see illustration below). This would suggest a fairly wide spread artistic convention.

This manuscript, fragmentary as it is, is still quite important. It is has the first surviving appearance of the knotwork that would a major motif in later Insular manuscripts. The later Insular gospel books would all use monograms similar to the "INI" monogram used here. It shows the continuation of the strong tradition of the diminuation of letters after an enlarged intitial.

The Bobbio Jerome initial. My apologies for the low quality of the image.

* Most manuscripts were not paginated as modern books are. In modern books, each side of a single leaf is given a new page number. Manuscripts are usually foliated, where each leaf is give a number. The two sides are then termed the "recto" and the "verso". The recto is the "front" side, that is the side that is on the right side of the book when it is opened. The other side, the verso is on the left side of the open book. Individual sides of folios are indicated by giving the folio number and an "r" or "v" for recto or verso.

**The incipit and explicit are the terms for text introducing announcing the beginning (incipit) and end (explicit) of a text. An incipit may read something like, "Here begins the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew". For the most part, except for an occasional "The End" at the end of some novels, this practice has died out in modern books.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bobbio Orosius

The Bobbio Orosius, from the 7th century, introduces an important motif to insular art, the Carpet Page. This is the oldest surviving carpet page. The design is not similar to the Carpet Pages in the later more famous gospel books (Durrow, Lindisfarne, Kells), but its purpose seem to have been similar; To serve as a sort of internal cover. As Dr. J. Kirsten Ataoguz points out over at Early Medieval Art, the Bobbio Orosius carpet page can be compared, at least in layout to the cover of the Stoneyhurst Gospels. (see below for image.) Like the later gospel books this carpet page faces a decorated initial. (I regret not having an image of the initial, and the poor image of the carpet page here, but it is all that is available on the net.)

The Bobbio Orosius also represents an important movement in the religious and artistic history of Europe. Although the manuscript was produced at a monastery in Italy, it was produced by Irish monks. The monastery in question, Bobbio was founded by St. Columbanus, who was from Ireland. Many important communities on the continent were founded by Irish monks. Many of the important "insular" manuscripts were in fact produced in the scriptoria of these communities. These monasteries were to play a vital role in the religious and artistic life of the next several centuries.

The manuscript itself (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana MS D. 23. Sup.) is a copy of the Chronicon of Orosius. In the seventeenth century it was given to the newly established Ambrosian Library in Milan, where it remains today. Dr. Ataoguz also has a discussion of this manuscript at Early Medieval Art.

The Stonyhurst Gospel Covers

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Cathach of St. Columba

The Cathach of St. Columba is the starting point for Celtic manuscripts. The traditional story is that Columba was lent a psalter by St. Finnian on the condition that he not copy it. Columba nevertheless copied in a single miraculous all-night session. When Finnian discovered the manuscript, he appealed to the local king, who awarded the copy to Finnian. Columba raised his kinsmen which resulted in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne. Columba went into exile, where he founded Iona, as penance for the men killed in the battle. The Cathach is traditionally identified with Columba's copy. The Cathach, however, has been dated to the 7th century on paleological grounds. Throughout the Middle Ages it was carried into battle as a talisman, a practice from which it gets it name. "Cathach" means "battler" in Irish.

The decoration in the Cathach is limited to the first few letters of each Psalm. This decoration establishes several themes that are explored in great depth in later manuscripts. The first letter of each Psalm is enlarged. In earlier manuscripts initial letters had been enlarged and decorated. Bit the decorations in those manuscripts were used to fill space or were appended to the latter. In the Cathach, the decoration distorts the shape of the letter, so that the letter becomes the decoration. Subsequent letters were drawn into the decoration through the gradual shrinking of the letters. In earlier manuscripts the letters after the first letter were the same size as the he rest of the text. In the Cathach, each subsequent letter is a bit smaller than the preceding letter until the letters reach the size of the bulk of the text. The letters are often decorated with small red dots. These three ideas the distortion of letters for decoration, the dimidation of letters, and the use red dots for decoration are ideas worked out in great detail later.

Monday, June 2, 2008

5th century Coptic manuscript.

This manuscript represents a bit of a frustration for me. I had read Weitzmann, and some other sources so I thought I had a pretty good idea what were the important manuscripts. Then I checked out Lorenzo Crinelli's, Treasures from Italy's Great Libraries (New York, The Vendome Press, 1997). One of the early manuscripts was this 5th century Coptic Old Testament fragment (Naples, Biblioteca Vittorio Emanuele III, 1 B 18). Illustrated here is Job and his daughters. I wrote an article about it for Wikipedia. It makes me wonder though, how many more very early manuscripts am I missing? Are there other 5th century Coptic manuscripts. What about other eastern manuscripts. I know about Syriac manuscripts (The Rabula Gospels and the Bible in Paris) are there more? I haven't found a text in English on Coptic manuscripts, although there are some in French. It may be worth my while to struggle through them.

All of that aside, so that you won't have go read the Wikipedia article, here are the basics. This is a fragment of 5th century manuscript of the Old Testament written in the Coptic language. The manuscript has only 8 surviving folios and includes the text from the Book of Job and from Proverbs. One folio has a large pen drawing illustrating Job and his daughters with Job pictured as a bearded man wearing a crown and short tunic. His daughters wear tunics with jewels and diadems. The iconography of Job is very different in this manuscript from that in later centuries. Here he is seen as royal figure while in later portrayals he is seen as humbled and sitting on a dung heap.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Medieval Survey bibliography

I would like to compile a bibliography of medieval art. In part it serves as a wish list, in case I ever win the lottery. This is a start, these works are surveys of the entire Medieval period. The only ones I am familiar with are the Calkins, which I own; the 1st edition of the Snyder, which was my Medieval Art textbook at OU; and the Stokstad which I have seen in the library. I quick look via Google at a few syllabuses for Medieval Art surveys seems to show the Snyder and Stokstad are the two most common textbooks in use. I hope to get my hands on the all of these in the near future. I f I do so, I may repost an annotated version of this.

Benton, Janetta Rebold, Art of the Middle Ages, New York, N.Y. : Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Calkins, Robert G., Monuments of Medieval Art. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, [1985?], c1979.

Focillon, Henri, (trans. Donald King). The Art of the West in the Middle Ages, 2 Volumes. London, New York, Phaidon, 1969.

Kessler, Herbert L, Seeing Medieval Art, Peterborough, Ont. ; Orchard Park, NY : Broadview Press, c2004.

Lacroix, Paul. Arts In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. New York, F. Ungar Pub. Co. [1964]

Lethaby, William Richard, Medieval Art From the Peace of the Church to the Eve of the Renaissance, 312-1350., London, Duckworth and co., New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1904.

Luttikhuizen, Henry and Dorothy Verkerk, eds., Snyder's Medieval Art, Second Edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, 2006.

Morey Charles Rufus, Mediaeval Art New York, W. W. Norton & company, inc. [1942]

Reber, Franz von, History of Mediaeval Art, New York, Harper & brothers, 1887.

Sekules, Veronica, Medieval Art, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001.

Snyder, James; Medieval Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture 4th-14th Century; New York : H.N. Abrams, 1989; Upper Saddle River, NJ : Prentice Hall, 2006.

Stokstad, Marilyn, Medieval Art, 2nd ed., Boulder, Colo. : Westview Press, c2004.

Zarnecki, George, Art of the Medieval World, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, the Sacred Arts, Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1975.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The preceding post were originally posted at my other blog. Posts made here will show up there (except this one). A lot of stuff that shows up there won't show up there. I will probably revisit all of the objects blogged below.

On this blog, I intend to discuss not only manuscripts, but the whole range of medieval art. I reserve the right to define "medieval" and "art" however the hell I wish. I also hope to be able to point to other resources on medieval art. On the name, Monstrous Beauty, it comes from Bernard of Clairvaux, who when discussing (and denouncing) the Romanesque art that decorated the churches of his day railed against the "beautiful monstrosities and monstrous beauties" he found. I like Romanesque art, and the term "Monstrous Beauty" is indeed a great description of it.

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.

The Caligula Troper

This is a page from the Caligula Troper (British Library, MS Caligula A XIV). A troper is a collection of tropes, which were new music inserted into the chants of the mass for special feast days. This book was intended to be used by a soloist, and was of a small scale. The opulence of the decoration indicate that it was made for an important patron. The tropes included in the manuscript indicate that it may have been made in Winchester or Worcester. It was made in about 1050. This page has an image of the Wise Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) as an illustration for the mass for Virgin Saints. The Virgins hold the lamps and torches from the parable, along with branches, which may represent the the palms of martyrdom. The Hand of God blesses them from above. The Virgins' robes are abstracted into a geometric pattern and the are placed against a gold background which gives an unworldly, spiritual feel to the illustration.

The manuscript names comes form its position in the Cotton Library. Robert Cotton was a 17th century bibliophile. He kept his manuscripts in case above which were busts of Roman emperors and Ladies. These busts were used to Catalog the manuscripts. This manuscripts shelfmark, Caligula A XIV meant that the manuscript was in the case under the bust Caligula, on the first shelf, and 14th book from the left. When the Cotton Library became one of the foundational collections of the British Library, its shelfmarks were retained.

The Vatican Virgil

This is a page from the Vatican Virgil (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225). This is one of the oldest surviving illuminated manuscripts, dating to about 400. It is one of only three surviving illustrated manuscripts of classical literature from the classical period. In a one sense, this is where manuscript illumination started. The style is similar to the frescoes found at Pompeii and in the Roman catacombs. They are typical of late Roman painting, showing an illusionistic treatment of space and modeling of the human form. There are 77 surviving leaves with 50 illustrations. The manuscript originally probably had about 440 leaves and 280 illustrations.

The Fuller Brooch

The Fuller Brooch
Originally uploaded by uk - charlie
For a change of pace, I thought I would not do a manuscript today. This is the Fuller Brooch, a piece of 9th century Anglo-Saxon jewelry. It may be the only piece of secular Anglo-Saxon metal work to survive above ground. (All other secular pieces have been found as part of treasure hoards. Some religious pieces survived in churches.) Years ago, when I first started at Wikipedia, I wrote my first article about this brooch. To quote what I said there:

The Fuller Brooch is a large disc made of hammered sheet silver inlaid with black niello and with a diameter of 11.4 cm. Its center roundel is decorated with personifications of the five senses. In the center is Sight with large staring oval eyes, surrounded by the other four senses, each in his own compartment. Taste has a hand in his mouth. Smell's hands are behind his back, and he stands between two tall plants. Touch rubs his hands together. Hearing holds his hand to his ear. This is the earliest known representation of the five senses. In the outer border are human, bird, animal and plant motifs.

Yates Thompson Bede

Today's manuscript (British Library, Yates Thompson 26) is a twelfth century copy of Bede's prose Life of Cuthbert. (Bede also wrote a verse Life of Cuthbert). This manuscript was produced in northern England in the last quarter of the twelfth century, probably at Durham. It is know to have been at Durham during the later fourteenth century and early fifteenth century. The manuscript has 150 surviving folios with 46 full page miniatures. This miniature shows Cuthbert setting sail with two disciples. All of the illustrations are set before the gold background within the heavy colored frame seen here. This has the effect of emphasizing the otherworldly nature of the scene. This is after all an illustration of a Saint. This is one of my favorite manuscript pages. I particularly love the way the water is piled up in alternating shades of blue into a mound.

The Escorial Beatus

This is a page from the Escorial Beatus (Escorial, Biblioteca Monasterio, Cod. & II. 5). Beatus of Liébana was an 8th century monk who wrote a commentary on the Book of Revelation. Actually "wrote" is a bit of strong word, as what he actually did was compile a bunch of other writer's comments together. For some reason his Commentary became a very popular book in the 9th and 10th centuries. There are twenty some copies extant, most of which are lavishly illustrated, often with full page miniatures. The Beatus manuscripts are an important part of what is called Mozarabic Art. There existed in the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula a tradition of manuscript illustration that was unlike anything else be doing anywhere else in Europe. This tradition emphasized flat, stylized forms for the human bodies. The drapery of the clothes was portrayed as abstract patterns that gave little indication of a body beneath. There was a strong, almost garish sense of color with vivid yellows, greens and reds dominating. The iconography was often startlingly original. It seemed almost as if the entire tradition of book illumination had to be invented anew.

This manuscript dates from the 10th century. It has 151 surviving folios with 52 surviving miniatures. It was probably produced at the monastery at
San Millán de la Cogolla. It is now in the Escorial.

The Quedlinburg Itala

This is a page from the Quedlinburg Itala fragment. The Quedlinburg Itala fragment was found in the binding of some books from the town of Quedlinburg. It is the oldest surviving Biblical illustrations and is thought to date to the 5th century. The style of the illustrations are similiar to the those found in late Roman manuscripts, notably the Vatican Virgil. The illustrations are heavily damaged. Beneath the illustrations are instructions to the artists on what to paint, giving insight into the working methods of book production during late antiquity.