Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Papyrus Style

Before the invention of the codex, that is, a book made of leaves bound on one side, books were mostly on scrolls, and the predominate material for scrolls was papyrus. Papyrus was a paper like material made from a plant that grew in the Nile Delta. Greeks and Romans used papyrus as well as Egyptians, but because papyrus did not survive well in moist environments, the vast majority of papyrus survive has been found in Egypt. Because a scroll was continually rolled and unrolled, thick pigments would quickly flake off, so papyrus scrolls were not decorated or illustrated in the manner of later manuscripts, with lavish colored decorations. Scientific and mathematical texts required illustration, while illustration was optional for literary texts. Both types of texts did have illustrations though, and in a similar style, called by Kurt Weitzman called the "papyrus style". In the papyrus style, small, quickly drawn, ink illustrations would be inserted into gaps in the text block. The were seldom colored and usually had little if any background or framing.

Few examples of illustrated papyri remain, and thoe only in fragments. One example is the so-called Heracles Papyrus. It consists of two columns of text which have three quick sketches of Heracles fighting the The Nemean lion.

The iconography of the sketches is fairly conventional, compare the second sketch with this roughly contemporary mosaic from Spain.

Not all works on Papyrus were quick, rough sketches. The Charioteer Papyrus (pictured at top) is a fragment containing a finely drawn colored illustration of six chariot charioteers. There is no text on the fragment, so it is not known what work it illustrated. Indeed it cannot be said with certainty is came from a scroll or an codex.

The Papyrus style was carried over into early codices, although it was eventually abandoned because of the new opportunities provided by the new format

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hoccleve, The Regiment of Princes

This is a presentation miniature from a manuscript of Hoccleve's, The Regiment of Princes (British Library, Arundel 38, Folio 37 recto). Hoccleve wrote The Regiment for Henry V shortly before his accession to the throne as a homily on virtues and vices. The introductory portion of the poem contains reminiscences of London tavern life, and calls on Sir John Oldcastle, "rise up, a manly knight, out of the slough of heresy." (The heresey being Lollardy.) Oldcastle was an old friend of the Henry V, who Henry eventually had executed for treason and who served as the model for Shakespeare's Falstaff. Hoccleve also took work as a scribe and worked with Adam Pinkhurst, who in 2004 was identified as Chaucer's Adam scrivener.

This miniature is often identified as Hoccleve presenting the book to Henry. But the man presenting the book is very well dressed, much more so than would be expected of a scribe, so it may represent John Mowbry, Duke of Norfolk, presenting the book to Henry. Norfolk was an early owner of the manuscript and his coat of arms are in the initial below the miniature. This is the only miniature in the manuscript. Other decoration includes three sided borders and illuminated initials.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Borgund stave Church

This is the Borgund Stave Church in Borgund, Norway The church was built in the late 12 or early 13th century and is the best preserved medieval stave church. A stave church is a wooden church made with a type of post and beam construction. Almost all surviving stave churches are in Norway. One survives in Sweden and one was moved to what is now Poland. A similar, Anglo-Saxon palisade church survive in England. Although only a few of these churches remain, they were, at one time fairly common throughout northern Europe. Because masonry and other stone work survives better than construction in wood, it easy for modern viewers to loose sight of the reality that much medieval architecture was actually in made of perishable materials.

Image credits, Wikipedia.

Jeremiah, Church of Saint-Pierre, Moissac

The Church of Saint-Pierre, Moissac was on of the stopping points in southern France on the great pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. The church and its cloister host one of the greatest and best preserved collections of Romanesque sculpture in France. Amongst the sculpture is the famous Jeremiah contained within the trumeau (center post) on the south portal. The front of the trumeau has three sets of crossed lions. The lions create a gently scalloped contour along the sides of the trumeau, mirroring the the deeply scalloped jambs on either side of the portal. On the right side of the trumeau, is the sculpture of the prophet Jeremiah. The elongated body and graceful cross-legged posture rises and falls above the over-sized feet to match the scalloping on the front of the trumeau. The hair and beard are stylized plaits formed of groups of incised parallel lines. The stylized drapery clings to the body. The face, unusually well preserved for a sculpture positioned so easily within reach of vandals, is delicate and expressive. The entire effect is not one of portraiture, but instead one of idealized spirituality and reflection.

Image credits:

Detail of head, Emmanuel (epierre) on Flickr.
Portal, Elena Giglia (eg65) on Flickr.
Frontal view and oblique view, tilina25 on Flickr.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chludov Psalter

The Chludov Psalter is one of the few surviving 9th century Byzantine manuscripts. The early part of the 9th century was a period of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. The Iconoclasm was a reaction against the use of religious images. During this period many works of art were destroyed. The Chludov Psalter was made either in secret during the Iconoclasm or after the restoration of icon, as a polemic against the Iconoclasm. In this illustration, the act of painting over an icon is paired with the Crucifixion, comparing those who destroyed icons to those who crucified Christ. To the right of the text a soldier offers Jesus a sponge filled with vinegar, while below the iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian is seen painting over an icon of Christ using similar sponge attached to a pole. Even the pot for the the patriarch's paint is similar to the pot holding the vinegar used by the soldier.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury was my first. I was an ignorant 18 year old, just graduated from high school, spending the summer in Europe. My brother and I were on our way to Stonehenge and when we got to the town of Salisbury and we found that we had missed the bus. The next one wouldn't run for an hour. We noticed a spire looming over the town, and decided to go take a look. Finding a massive cathedral set in the middle of a park, we thought it would be worth exploring. In 1981, you couldn't enter through the main west portal, instead you entered on the west end, but off to the side. As I came in, it all felt very familiar, we were in the sort of vestibule that any Anglican church might have. Then we turned a corner and were in the nave. To this day, the feeling of absolute awe I felt has stayed with me. Only one other time, high in the Rocky Mountains, have I ever been so completely struck. On that trip we saw other cathedrals, Canterbury, Westminster Abbey, and St. Stephen's in Vienna, but, for me, that initial feeling of shock and joy will always belong to Salibury. We didn't catch the next bus either.

Salisbury, is unusual amongst cathedrals in that it was built entirely one building campaign and was happily spared major renovations in later centuries. There were no previous buildings on the site that could have constrained the plans. As a result it was built largely in a single style and has a unity that many cathedrals lack.

Image credits:
First exterior, michaelday_bath on flickr
Second exterior, Stephen McParlin (stephen_dedalus) on flickr
Nave, ajoh198 on flickr

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sutton Hoo Buckle.

Sutton Hoo was one of the greatest archeological finds in the British history. The grave of a 7th century Anglo-Saxon king, excavated in 1939, contained a literal treasure hoard. One of the most impressive pieces was this large gold belt buckle. The main body of the buckle is an intricate mass interwoven animals, executed in chip carving with black niello highlights. The overall design is symmetrical although the details of interlacing are not. The main plate is hollow and has a hinged back, forming a secret compartment.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Bernward Doors

The Bernward Doors, dating from 1015, are large bronze doors cast for the Cathedral of St. Mary in Hildesheim Germany, under the direction of Bishop Bernward. Bernward had visited Rome and may have been inspired by the ancient carved wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina. These doors represented a massive project for the time, being one of the largest cast bronze objects ever made in northern Europe. The left door contains eight scenes from the life of Adam, and the right eight scenes from the life of Christ. The scenes are carefully chosen and matched to emphasize the theological idea that Christ was the new Adam. For example, the Fall is matched with the Crucifixion, by which the fall was redeemed. The "trial" of Adam and Eve by God, is matched with the trial of Christ by Pilate.

The figures are set in a schematic space with a few plants or architectural details representing landscapes. The figures are in high relief, some of the heads lean out and become free of the background. Yet these nods to three dimensional reality for the scenes are undercut by the tendency for details, such as feet to overlap and break out of the surrounding frames.

Image credits:

Full door from Wikipedia.
Details from Sacred Destinations on Flickr.

Carpet Page, Lindisfarne Gospels

Others may rave about the Chi Rho monogram from the Book of Kells, but for my money, this is the single most impressive piece of illumination from the Middle Ages. This is one of the carpet pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels. It's said that each of the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels have an intentional error in the knotwork. Good luck finding it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lewis Chessmen

The Lewis chessmen are a group of chess pieces discovered on the Isle of Lewis in 1831. They were carved from walrus ivory and whale teeth in the 12th Century in Norway. There are 78 pieces: 8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns, from as many as 5 different sets. The pieces were probably part of the stock of a trader dealing in luxury goods. Some of the pieces bear traces of red pigment, indicating that the two sides were white and red, unlike the modern white and black. Unlike modern chess sets, the rooks are portrayed as soldiers, including four berserks, chewing their shields, while the pawns are small geometric pieces, resembling standing stones.

The collection was split up soon after its discovery. The Museum of Scotland now owns 11 of the pieces, while the British Museum owns the balance. A exhibition of pieces from both the Museum of Scotland and the British Museum, along with related artifacts is currently touring Great Britain. I hope it come to North America.

Image credits:
Berserk Rook, Rook, and Knight, RobRoyAus on Flickr.
All others, Wikimedia Commons

Santa Sabina, exterior

The Basilica of Santa Sabina is one of the oldest surviving early Christian basilicas. A few other basilicas are older (St Paul's Outside the Walls, St. Peter's, The Lateran) but they have all been substantially rebuilt or modified. Only St. Sabina's exterior remains close to the appearance of an early basilica.

Santa Sabina was built about a century after Constantine legalized Christianity. Although, it was not one of the original churches built under Constantine's patronage, but was built in the same style. The exterior is rather severe, without any external decoration. The clerestory windows above the aisles are filled with selenite rather than glass and allow large amounts of light into the interior. The interior was originally decorated with mosaics, but those are now lost. The original 5th century wooden door, carved with scenes from the Bible still exists.

Santa Sabina now serves as the mother church for the Dominican Order.

Image from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Crown of Reccesuinth

This is a votive crown given to the Church by Reccesuinth, King of the Visigoths (649 – 672). It is gold filigree set with sapphires, pearls and other gems and is the best surviving piece of Visigothic metalwork. The letters hanging from the crown spell [R]"ECCESVINTUS REX OFFERET" (King Reccesuinth offers this.) The crown is at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain is Spain except for the "R" pendant from RECCESVINTUS, which is in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.

Images from Wikipedia.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Orion from Leiden Aratea

Orion the Hunter from the Leiden Aratea. This is one of the great works of the Carolingian Renaissance, which how shows how thoroughly classical art was revived. This is such a close copy of its late antique model that is it was at one time thought to be of late antique provenence itself. Note the use of shading to model Orion's musculature. This had not been done in a realistic way for centuries when this manuscript was made. The text in this manuscript is know as the Aratea is by Germanicus and is based on the Phainomena of Aratus and is an introduction to the constellations. Germanicus is best remembered as the popular adoptive grandson of Augustus and grandfather of Nero. In Graves I, Claudius he was poisoned by Livia and Caligula. The Leiden university library has posted a digital facsimile of the manuscript here.

Leiden Aratea Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Voss. lat. Q 79, f. 58v.

Back again

I have had high hopes for this blog, but have been unable to follow through. Right now I don't have the time or energy to write longish articles on a regular basis. I think I might have the time to get up images of single pages of manuscripts or other objects, with very short descriptions on an almost daily basis. This is my goal for now. Think of it as your almost daily medieval art image.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Chi Rho monograms.

Last night I talked a bit about the Chi Rho monogram in the Stockholm Codex Aureus. It got me thinking about how often these monograms show up in insular gospel books. So I decided to see how may I could find and spent a couple of hours poking around looking for images of them. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are the ones I found, in roughly chronological order.

First up is the Book of Durrow, dating to the middle of the 7th century. The Chi is enlarged, the Rho slightly smaller, the whole line is enlarged and set off and colored yellow. It is n0t really known where the manuscript was made, although it was probably made somewhere in Ireland.

Durrow is followed by the Lindisfarne Gospels of about 7o0. This is a quantum leap with the Chi Rho dominating the page. The Chi and the Rho are extensively decorated. All of the text on the page is turned into one large decorative pattern. One of my favorite things about the Lindisfarne Gospels is how the artist would "draw" with the decorative red dots found in so many insular manuscripts. Here he has "written" with them to form the letters of the line following the Chi Rho monogram completely out of the red dots. The Lindisfarne Gospels are known to have been produced on the Island of Lindisfarne off the east coast of Northumberland.

Next up is an unnamed manuscript in the British Library (Royal MS 1 B VII). This is a smaller scale effort, as this is not as sumptuous of a manuscript. The zoomorphic Chi Rho Initial is as about as large as the initials which begins each of the gospels. The scribe started a new column at the Chi Rho initial, as if he were starting a new work, leaving the bottom of the left column blank. (The text in the obviously different script at the bottom of the left hand column is a later addition, a manumission of a slave in Old English.) This manuscript was produced in the first half of the 8th century in Northumbria.

Next is the St. Gall Gospels, now housed in the monastery at St. Gall in Switzerland. This manuscript was produced by monks in Ireland about 750 and brought with them when St. Gall was founded. By this point, Chi is taken over the page, leaving room for only a few words of additional text, which is so stylized and decorated as to be unreadable. (This and Lindisfarne are my two favorites.)

Next up is our friend from last night, the Stockholm Codex Aureus. This is somewhat more restrained, although the text is seen as a decorated pattern with legibility allowed to be lost to aesthetics. This manuscript was produced somewhere in Southumbria, probably Canterbury. The influence of the Roman Church mission at Canterbury probably exerted a restraining influence on the wilder "Celtic" traditions seen in more northern insular manuscripts. This manuscript dates to about 750.

This one needs no introduction. It is, of course, the Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells and easily one of the most famous manuscript images of the middle ages. Exuberance abounds and there is no restraint. (Despite its fame, I still like Lindisfarne better. Does that make me a heretic?)

This is from another unnamed manuscript in the British Library, (Royal MS 1 B VII). In a sense Kells was at once the culmination and last gasp of the Insular tradition. After Kells the Carolingian Renaissance got underway, and the insular style fell out of favor. The truly deluxe manuscripts of the era looked to classical models. Still some manuscripts were made in the Insular style. This manuscript is from about a century after Kells. Although the Chi Rho monogram is present it is more closely related to the zoomorphic initial of the other unnamed British Library manuscript than to the Durrow, Lindisfarne, St. Gall, and Kells.

This is from the the Bodmin Gospels which was made in the 9th or 10th century. This is not a deluxe manuscript, so, although the Chi is emphasized it is not a major piece of illumination.

This is from the Book of Deer, which was made in Scotland in the 10th century. One day I will have to talk more about this manuscript in detail. It is a relatively small scale, somewhat odd manuscript, but is clearly still following the Insular tradition.

This is the Corpus Irish Gospels, now owned by Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It was produced in the twelfth century, almost 500 years after the Book of Durrow. It, along with the next manuscript show the extreme tenacity with which this style had in Ireland. This monogram with its interlace decoration on spiral motifs would be at home in manuscripts centuries older.

My final manuscript is the Gospels of Mael Brigte, which are firmly dated by a colophon to 1138. Although simpler in decoration than the the Corpus Gospels, this manuscript is also done in the insular style, centuries after the style's high point and shows the enduring popularity of the style in Ireland.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stockholm Codex Aureus

It's been a long while since I posted anything here, but I'm back, at least for the moment.

This is the Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, Royal Library, MS A. 135), also known as the Codex Aureus of Canterbury. "Codex Aureus" can be translated as "Golden Book" and refers to the liberal use gold leaf used in the decoration of this manuscript. There are several other manuscripts known as the Codex Aureus as well, so you have to specify which one you are dealing with. Stockholm refers to its current location, while Canterbury refers to where it was probably made.

This is a Gospel Book and contains the Latin text of the four gospels. (I'm not sure what version, but I would bet that it is the mix of Vulgate and Vetus Latina found in other insular gospels). I also don't know what texts, other than the Gospels it contains, although I do know that it has Canon Tables. I would assume that some of the prefatory matter found in other Insular Gospels is present. There are 193 extant folios. Alternating folios have been dyed purple. The text is written in an uncial script in black, white, red, gold and silver inks. There are two surviving evangelist portraits, six decorated canon tables and seven decorated initials.

The portrait of Matthew shown here, is quite different from the highly stylized and abstracted portraits in other Insular manuscripts. Matthew is seated on throne within an arcade with pillars. Curtains hanging from above are wrapped around the pillars. In the tympanum above is his symbol, the winged man. There is little in the way decoration and the composition lacks the elaborate decorated borders found in some of the other insular manuscripts. Although the elements, including Matthew himself, are stylized and flattened the entire composition has a serene monumental quality. In many ways, this can be seen as a precursor to later Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian styles.

The facing text page, however, would be comfortably at home in any of the great Insular manuscripts like Kells or Durrow. The text block and each line of text is contained within a frame. The text lines alternate between a gilded background and golden letters, creating a dazzling effect. The opening initial is an elaborate monogram decorated with interlaced patterns and laid on a background of spiral motifs. As can be seen by the detail below, the draftsmanship is quite high.

That the evangelist portrait faces this page is quite interesting. The initial monogram is of the Greek letters Chi and Rho (XP). This monogram was often used as in place of the word for "Christ". The interesting thing is that, although evangelist portraits were usually placed at the beginning of a gospel, this is not the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. This is the text which begins at Matthew 1:18. The preceding 17 verses contain a genealogy of Christ, and the actual narrative of Christ's life starts here. In insular manuscripts, the genealogy was often treated almost as a separate work and this "second beginning" was often given its own frontispiece, although this is the only manuscript that I am aware of that moves the evangelist portrait here. The enlarged, decorated Chi Rho monogram at this point in the text is a motif that is limited to insular gospel books.

This manuscript was at Christ Church, Oxford in the 9th century. It was looted by the Vikings, ransomed by Earl Alfred (later King Alfred). At some time in the middle ages it was lost again. It was found by a Swede in 1690 in Spain and purchased for the Swedish Royal Library