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Apocalypse Then: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan

Posted by gninja on June 27, 2007


A month ago, I went to see the exhibition of the Las Huelgas Apocalypse manuscript at the Morgan Library and Museum (I think that’s their new name– they underwent some kind of re-branding after their major renovation). In short:

The Las Huelgas Apocalypse is the largest and latest (1220) of a five-hundred-year series of medieval illuminated commentaries on the Apocalypse by the monk Beatus of LiĆ©bana. The series is considered Spain’s most important contribution to medieval manuscript illumination. Visitors to the exhibition have the rare opportunity to view fifty of the Las Huelgas miniatures because the manuscript was disbound for the preparation of the facsimile; the leaves will be displayed in their original order.

Unfortunately, no photography was allowed (goodness, I hate that policy), so I can’t show any of my own images of the gallery.

The exhibition was laid out quite simply, in one room, with pages from the Las Huelgas manuscript behind glass frames mounted on the walls around the room. In the center of the room was a facsimile of the manuscript (a rather good idea, I thought), along with some cases filled with other Apocalypse manuscripts for comparison purposes. Simple enough.

I spent about 45 minutes in the gallery, maybe a bit less, and– as someone who studies manuscripts– I felt a bit disappointed in myself for not lingering. It took some reflection to figure out why I wasn’t all that impressed or intrigued.

(By the way, if you want more information on the exhibition, there are two reviews here and here. )

With the exception of the small selection of other manuscripts on display, it was pretty much a one-man show. The manuscript was displayed with virtually no supporting actors (to carry out the analogy), so all our attention was of necessity focused on it alone. True, it’s a spectacular manuscript, filled with eye candy. But– and I think this is a problem in the study of medieval art in general– there was no attempt made whatsoever to create an argument, to get the viewers to think. Which leads me to believe that the aim of such an exhibition can only be two things: 1) to put up an aesthetically impressive objet d’art and have audiences ooh and ah; and 2) to appeal to an audience already familiar with the art on display and equipped with the knowledge to make his own comparisons, or to draw her own conclusions about the work.

I understand that I’ve been fostered in the still strong Wolfflinian tradition of art history that encourages comparison (if you have access to JSTOR, I recommend this article), so I’m predisposed to wanting the images I look at placed up against other images. Still, though. These are Apocalypse manuscripts. There are so many ways to go with this– it could’ve been a great, great exhibition. And not necessarily in the (supposedly sensational) way that the Royal Academy dealt with the topic in 2000.

First, and perhaps this is a bit of a quibble, if the title of your exhibition is a play on words, that play on words should be justified. Otherwise–as I think it is in this case–the title is just cutesy and irrelevant to the content of the show. But if you’ve got a title like “Apocalypse Then”, why not include contemporary images (or imaginings / allusions) of the Book of Revelation? It would have made it a more far-ranging show (though by no means as far-ranging as one that would use contemporary apocalyptic images), but keeping things within limits is what curators are meant to do anyway.

But if something like that is too gauche for the “stately” Morgan, then why not draw better comparisons between the other Apocalypse manuscripts on display? There is a longstanding tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts, and we learn a lot about visual communication from the different ways in which these manuscripts are laid out and illuminated. Just one example demonstrates what I mean: the decision to include St John (the author of Revelation) as a witness to the scenes, outside of the miniatures’ frames, or to keep him as an active figure within the frames of the miniatures determines how the reader-viewer will conceive of the text– as a form of prophecy or vision, or a mystical experience felt viscerally by St John.

So while it was enjoyable to see the folios of this manuscript and digest the images, I could also have gotten the same experience from a facsimile soon (I assume) to be purchased by the arts library at Columbia. When I go to a gallery or museum I want more than just to look– I want also to be challenged to think about what’s before me, and it’s the duty of the curator to spark that process.

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Remediation and Recontentualization

Posted by gninja on April 22, 2007

The rather tongue twisting and neologizing (I think that one’s a neologism, too) title of this post refers to my current interest in the ways in which new media re-present old content, and how old media re-present new content. So, for remediation, I’m thinking of the theories put forward by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book on the concept. (Yes, yes, I realize it’s a bit outdated by now and some of the illustrations look downright archaic, but it nevertheless articulates some insightful thoughts about new media.)

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m most concerned with a manuscript of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, one which contains his 33,000-line poem accompanied by a full cycle of manuscripts and illumination. This manuscript is unusually elaborate for its secular, poetic content. What’s most interesting, I think, is that the layout of this manuscript and its cycle of images are heavily influenced by–if not wholly emulative of– manuscripts containing liturgical or scholastic content.

As an example:


This folio in particular appropriates the layout of scientific manuscripts, whose design was specific to their content and would not have been used for other kinds of texts. Not surprisingly, then, it’s only in Book VII of the Confessio Amantis where this layout is adopted– Book VII is devoted to scientific matters and Aristotelian theories. However, it’s not just the use of a layout specific to content that interests me but also the many ways in which this manuscript deploys design techniques and uses imagery from a wide array of sources in order to shape the reader-viewer’s understanding of the narratives contained therein.

It depends upon convention and innovation in a way that suggests to me the term “recontentualize”– a term I think I may have invented though accept that someone may have already done the pompous deed for me. Rather than using new media to re-present old forms or narratives, this manuscript (and many other secular manuscripts of the fifteenth century) use pre-existing media and imagery to manipulate understandings of new texts. It is more than just, to paraphrase Brigitte Buettner, producing objects of cognition rather than objects of recognition. Rather, it is a process of using objects of recognition to shape our understanding of objects of cognition.

In my next post I’ll discuss how I’m trying to articulate the visual and textual language of secular medieval manuscript communication, and how that language has something to offer us as reader-viewer-users of new media.

As a teaser: I’ll ask whether Edward Tufte was right in referring to Powerpoint as evil. And if so, can we redeem it? Read the rest of this entry »

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Bibliography and Project

Posted by gninja on April 11, 2007

As promised, I’ll continue to post a manuscripts bibliography as I edit and add to it. Here’s the latest incarnation:


In the following weeks, I’ll be tinkering with a paper which I’m presenting for the Guild of Book Workers here in NY. The paper deals with a manuscript of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, which has been researched almost exclusively by literary historians. I’m interested in the ways in which the miniatures that accompany the text in this manuscripts alter the ways in which readers access and understand the poem. So, over the next few weeks (perhaps longer) I’ll be addressing this manuscript in a series of posts.

For now, I’ll link to the Project Gutenberg page for the Confessio Amantis.

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Where Time Goes…

Posted by gninja on February 23, 2007

The lack of posts on this blog can be attributed to one thing, and one thing only: qualifying exams. So, to compensate for the lack of posts, I attach a working bibliography for the study of medieval manuscripts. It’s not easy coming by an authoritative bibliography for manuscript studies, so the following is my current bibliography (which is updated on an almost daily basis).

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Textual Authority and the Vernacular Manuscript

Posted by gninja on June 15, 2006

(In a previous post, I discussed how the use of rubrication to highlight the words of Christ and the application of embellished scripts to chapter headings and conclusions served as conventional indicators of a text’s authority. Simply put, the more important a text, the more effort by scribes and illuminators put into ensuring that its message was communicated clearly. This included highlighting significant words or verses and dividing the text or argument into visually and conceptually digestible units.)

If visual devices that proclaimed the high intellectual value and authority of a work were employed in manuscripts that contain scriputral texts and works by auctores, what are we to make of the presence of these devices in a manuscript whose principal content is neither?

Take a look at this image:


No doubt you notice how elaborate this folio is.


What is it?

This image comes from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (MS M126) and is a manuscript containing John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (my bibliopgraphy can be found here: thesis-bibliography.doc). This extended poem of 33,000 lines is divided into eight books and a prologue. It was begun–according to Gower, at the behest of King Richard II–in 1386. The text begins with the complaint of a lovesick youth called Amans, who is visted by Venus and a Confessor, known as Genius. Seeing that he is so despondent in both his lovelorn status and disappointment with the affairs of his world (the Confessio Amantis, in several sections, is fraught with political overtones) the pair compel the lover to confess his feelings. The following seven books, then, proceed as an alternation between the lover’s confession and traditional tales of love. These tales are broken up thematically into seven different books, each one devoted to a deadly sin. As the text is intended to be instructional, for Amans and ostensibly the reader, each book contains heavily moralized stories dealing with the protagonists’ embodiment or sagacious rejection of the Deadly Sin at hand.

None of these stories is original. However, Gower proves an adept compilator in the way in which he organizes the arrangement of these tales thematically, and in the way he uses language. The Confessio Amantis is a macaronic work: that is, it is a single work combining more than one language. In this case, Gower has written in both Middle English and Latin. It is important to note the use of Latin in this secular poem. True, the division of tales into the Seven Deadly Sins is informed by Christianity. And the moralization of the tales is also predicated upon a Christian system of behavioral regulations. However, the content of the tales is by and large secular, and, for a society so entrenched in and circumscribed by Christianity, this work could in no way be mistaken for a religious text. Returning to the language, then, the use of Latin (the language of authority and religion) would have been seen as highly irregular here. And indeed, the Latin verses are in prose form (thus distinguishing it from the rhyming, poetic Middle English verses), and they are the words of a narrator who provides overtly moralized synopses for each tale.


Why language and division?

I have focused here on the use of Latin and the the tematically organized arragement of the Confessio Amantis because these are the most glaring signs that the author, Gower, was up to something. In addition to various other aspects of the text, the circumstances of the poem’s commission, and Gower’s bibliography, it is clear to me that he had an agenda. That agenda was to heft up the reputation of this vernacular collection of love stories to that of something with intellectual merit and gravitas. And, indeed, there is a large section in the middle of the poem devoted to a scientific and philosophical discussion. Which brings up Aristotle– the medieval method par excellence of ensuring that people would find you serious serious. They were insane for Aristotle.


So…what’s with the image?

Returning (finally) to the image above, I can point out some ways in which Gower ensured that even the visual presentation of his text conveyed its lofty nature. (Gower almost certainly had a hand in devising the original mauscript for this text, and this manuscript is a close descendent, of the original one, from the same scriptorium– meaning it probably reflects or even emulates the original design.) Note the rubrication. Throughout the manuscript, it is used only for the Latin and for character markers, denoting lines spoken by Genius and Amans in their dialogues. This use of character markers is more than just convenient: the Dialogue was a literary and philosophical genre dating back to antiquity, which in the Middle Ages was considered pertinent to high intellectual matter. Then there is the embellished initial ‘A’ in gold, marking the beginning of this section of text. There is also the miniature, one among 110 in this manuscript–an extraordinarily rare, high number of minitaures for a vernacular manuscript. These, too, are used as tools for division, marking off the most significant tales. The one we see illustrated here comes from the prologue of the poem, a section recounting Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream, interpreted as representing the devolution of society or the four empires of man. However, since the miniatures merit a discussion of their own, for now, it is important to draw our attention to the way in which this manuscript contains visual devices, once reserved exclusively for scriputural and “serious” authoritative texts in order to confer authority upon Gower’s poem.

This method is something we see every day, and while it’s not necessary to research the manuscripts of John Gower’s works, doing so is one way of becoming keenly attuned to it. Watching something that looks like a news report but feels fishily like an endorsement for something (be it Product X, Candidate Y, or Issue Z)? Our way of fitting one kind of content into the estimable framework of something reliable and authoritative. Happens all the time. Well, many of our medieval ancestors were mavericks at that game.


NB: this post has been the briefest of brief summaries of an argument I made in my BA Honors Thesis, A Fifteenth Century Manuscript of the Confessio Amantis. I would like to post it online and provide a link to it from here, when I can. The content will be available for anyone to read and use for research. Although it is unpublished and lacks an ISBN I do ask that anyone who references it provide the appropriate citation.

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Rubrication and Textual Authority

Posted by gninja on June 8, 2006

Recently I mentioned rubrucation as an organizational device in manuscripts, and while it is a simple enough tool in its description, it has a semiotic function that requires a more thorough explanation.

In brief: rubrication was the application of colored ink (usually red; from the Latin rubrico, “to color red”) to certain parts of a text. Notably, red letters were used to indicate direct quotes from Christ.

As an aside, I found this as Wiki’s entry for Red Letter Edition. Uh… “invented” in the 19th century? Sorry, but illuminators have been rubricating Christ’s words for at least a thousand years now. Grr.

In any case, rubrication was also used for titles, chapter headings, and chapter endings. So, for example, the begnning of a chapter would have such words in red as “Incipit liber 2…” as in the case of this 9th century manuscript, a collection of episcopal epistles and laws (or so I gathered from the very little Latin I could cull).


Another example would be this manuscript, a 13th century collection of works by Boethius and Aristotle.

In this case, an authoritative text has not only been given the honor of a floriated, rubricated title, but it has also received the marginal comments of numerous readers refusing to allow their philosophical heroes to rest in peace. Although a topic for another time, I do love this image because it is an illustration of just how interactive medieval manuscripts were– if you spent as many ducats as they did on a book, you were sure to bequeath it in yourwill, thereby ensuring that later generations would profit from the manscript… and that they’d eviscerate your marginal comments long after you were gone. But I’ve digressed.

So, the extra effort put into including painted chapter headings, section divisions, etc was reserved mostly for authoritative texts, often ones with complicated theoretical or philosophicl arguments that benefited from any number of visual forms of organization.

Eventually, as one might expect, what began as a visual tool to enhance facility of reading became a conceptual device to highlight the authoritative nature of the text. People automatically came to associate rubrication and textual division (divisio) with works of a lofty quality or elevated content.

Interestingly, I’ve seen evidence (though I cannot be certain that others would agree with me) in late medieval manuscripts of a conscious effort to usurp this marker of importance. More specifically, I’ve had the opportunity to study vernacular manuscripts containing what would have been considered frivolous or unimportant material employing the devices of authority to proclaim their own importance. This, however, will be left alone for now and discussed in my next post.

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Canon Tables

Posted by gninja on June 6, 2006

Canon tables are a fairly neat little convention seen in many medieval bibles. As an invention, they are attributed to Eusebius, a 3rd-4th century bishop of Palestine and major player in the First Council of Nicaea. Whether or not there is truth in this attribution, its association with an early Church Father nonetheless testifies to the importance of canon tables in the written tradition of the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels (the canonical, as opposed to the apocryphal, ones).

In short, a canon table is a tool of concordance. Because the four Gospels differ from one another, a table was created to show which verses are shared by each or some of the Gospels, and where these verses occur.

Here’s an example of a canon table:


These, much like a table of contents page, were most often placed at the beginning of a manuscript, and it was not uncommon for multiple canon tables to be included.

Canon tables, however, are not merely a nifty convenience, but they also serve a less practical and more conceptual purpose. If you recall, I had mentioned in my last post that a medieval reader would be attuned to certain signs in the manuscript. For example, the layout of the text and the script– just two of many, many possible signs– conveyed to the reader what kind of literature or writing she was about to read. (I must pause here to name-drop in order to emphasize how useful the work of AJ Minnis and MB Parkes is to supplying us with an understanding of medieval textual organization and presentation. Strikingly, neither of these men is an art historian. They, like so many scholars of manuscript studies, are literary theorists.)

One of these signs is indeed the canon table. Because the Bible is the ultimate auctoritas,the manuscript containing the words of the Bible would be given the most careful and deliberate treatment, whereas the manuscript containing a set of lyrics and romances would be given a more casual look.

Think of it in terms of a meal. A meal is something we eat. But a picnic comes with a set of signs very different from a holiday meal. (NB: I am describing in the following the Americanized ideals or models with the full recognition that such are paragons and not necessarily typicalities.) The picnic comes with: basket, blanket, paper plates and napkins, plastic cutlery, disposable cups, hand-held food, and a more laid back attitide of the participants. A holiday meal–let’s say Thanksgiving–comes with: a table with fancy table-cloth, the special family silverware, fine china, foods that require different utensils, and participants who engage in formalized rituals (e.g. naming the things for which we are thankful). If we saw a picnic layout, we would not approach it with the same demeanor as we would a Thanksgiving spread, and vice-versa.

So it is with texts, and even moreso for manuscripts, which were unique and often illustrated. The canon table was a tool that not only helped readers find concordances among the Gospels, but it also reinforced the authority and eminence of the text. Immediately upon opening the manuscript, and without reading a word, the reader would confront an elaborate table. And like the fine china and sparkling crystal glasses at the Thanksgiving meal, the table would prcolaim “imporatant!”

Of course, this is a Bible, and it seems that such a sign would be unnecessary– everyone knows (or knew) that the Bible was, well, The Good Book. True, but such a truth does not inhere in the text itself, but rather the traditions, laws, and institutions that are built up around it. People never automatically thought the Bible was the ultimate textual authority. It took years for such an authority to be established, and the creation of an elaborate, finely decorated, and painstakingly organized manuscript tradition for Bibles helped establish the text’s authority. Of course, so too did many other conventions within Christianity.

It’s no mistake, then, that canon tables almost always come within an architectural framework (take another look at the image above). Not only does the table assert the authority of the text, but it also houses (pun absolutely intended) the Word of God within the structure of the Church, thereby co-opting the Word’s power for itself. To say co-opt may even be an understatement, since Christ was considered Word incarnate (the Word was actually considered the inviolate body of Christ, which was why vandalizing a Bible would be likened linguistically to injuring Christ’s body). So, really, when one looks at these canon tables, he is looking at the institution of the Church being the receptacle, the house, for the body of Christ. I can’t think of a greater power statement within the context of medieval society than that.

Note: I understand that this last paragraph has a whole lot of information in very little space. I hope, in the future, to expland upon and clarify these notions.

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Marginalia as Subversive?: Part 2 of 2

Posted by gninja on June 3, 2006

In the previous post, I described facing folios in the Rutland Psalter. While my intention is to focus on the, perhaps surprising, marginal images below the text, I made sure to characterize all aspects of the folios– not just the figures below. The reason for doing this is twofold:

1) in a manuscript even the text should be considered as an image, in that the way in which the words are written (their form, or, their appearance) carries meaning in the same way we today would use, for example, cursive for a formal invitation and bubble letters for a lemonade-stand sign.

2) standard art history practice is to describe all of what you see, to alllow the reader to get his bearings, even if you only intend to talk about a section of the image.

Specific to this work, however, I described the text because it is important to note how the illuminator has both divided text and image and created continuity between text and image.

Let’s start with division. This is a sacred text, and its inviolate nature is emphasized by the area of text remaining an organized, even, independent unit. As I mentioned yesterday, the artist has deliberately used design (i.e. the pen flourishes) to ensure that the lines of text all end evenly. The rubricated initials at the beginning of each verse establish order in the way enumerating chapters does. The letters are inscribed in a formal script, as well. Medieval readers would have been familiar with these characteristics as signs of a sacred or authoritative text– vernacular or secular texts of less serious content woud not be given such a treatment. There would be few, if any, attempts at visually dividing sections of text into verses or chapters, script would be less even and formal, etc.

However, the odd hybrid creature indicates a continuity between text and marginal image. Not only does it extend from the painted border of the text into the marginal area, but it gazes at the marginal figures as well. Thus, these two areas of the folio are separate, yet somwhow in dialogue. The very hybridity of the creature marks this folio as a site of amalgamated difference: sacred text; profane marginalia.

Proceeding, then, to the marginal figures…

On the left :

On the right:


Rather than ferret out the exact meaning of these images, I am interested in understanding how they work. For one, I do not have a proficient knowlede of Latin and therefore cannot comment on how these images may be making visual puns from words in the Psalm (Camille argues that the ass-baring figure is a play on “iuvencularum,” a combination of iuven [youth] and cul [ass], immediately above). For another, even if these images did have one specific meaning, trying to find it would be a fool’s errand. We can’t know what the artist intended, and there are far too many documents that could be culled selectively and used as proof for various different arguments.

So, where’s the beef? Or, rather, what’s the point?

Unlike miniatures or the formal painted elements within or bordering the block of text, which were usually created according to pencilled-in instructions left by the manuscript devisor (i.e. the boss), the margins were areas where the artists could do their own thing and play around. They were informal spaces for jokes or bawdy and strange images. The thing is, this was still a manuscript created by a monk, or at the very least, by someone working within a monastery workshop. So whatever the joke or subversive image may have been, it still functions in a way that reaffirms the power of the existing order.


By putting all these weird images that may even be mocking the sacred text outside of the sacred text, in a marginal space, the artist reduces the importance or the power of the image. If the image weren’t there we as readers wouldn’t even pause to think about the appropriate place of a naked guy’s ass or a man riding an oversized bird. But, because they are there, we now have reason to think about them. And where do they exist? Outside of the good, natural, superior, God-given order of the Psalm. At the same time, the saucy image (and, I should mention, there were many of these throughout the Rutland Psalter) gives the reader a sense of freedom from their naughtiness. But this is a false sense of freedom, because the reader is laughing at what the Church allows him to find funny. And he finds it funny because he knows it’s something considered abnormal or transgressive. By laughing, the reader then re-confirms the order of what is licit and illicit.

So would I say this marginalia is subversive? Absolutely not.

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Marginalia as Subversive? : Part 1 of 2 (A Teaser)

Posted by gninja on June 3, 2006

The image below is discussed in Michael Camille's Image on the Edge, a book that really shook things up in medieval art history. (As a personal note, if Camille were alive, I'd have done all I could to get to work with him.)

This is a page from the Rutland Psalter, from around the year 1250:


These folios contain the text of Psalm 67, verses 8-26. In order not to clutter the content I will include the full text of the psalm, both Latin and English, on the comments page. While I would like to have the content directly available here, formatting the double-columned text is tricky, so I'll have to include the text of Psalm 67 as a link.

As you might have guessed, the thing I'd really like to discuss is the curious image at the bottom of the right-hand folio (the verso). But first, let's describe what we see.

We see two pages of text, each with twenty lines of writing. On the left of each folio is a painted border including rubricated initials for the beginning of each verse. In lines that contain text which does not run to the end of the folio, ornamental pen flourishes complete the line, thus creating a solid and even block of text and pen marks. Hovering at the bottom of the left border is a fantastical, hybrid creature.

On the bottom of each folio are marginal illustrations, one of an armed man riding an ostrich, and the other of a nude man flashing his buttocks to the man-bird duo. Not exactly something we would expect to see in a religious book, is it?

But these curious and salacious images were not at all rare in religious manuscripts of the Middle Ages. And just how these bizarre images function will be the topic of my next post.

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