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Archive for the ‘medieval art 101’ Category

The Mercy Seat: A Teaser

Posted by gninja on June 22, 2006

Known as misericords, these were literally devices offering mercy to the monk at prayer. Every day, eight times a day, monks were required to attend the Divine Office and pray, standing, for long periods of time. In order to offer some level of alleviation to the physical strain, hinged seats were created so that, when in the up position, a small shelf projected outward. The monk could then take some pressure off his feet, but still remain upright, by leaning against this shelf.


Frequently, the underpart of the seat, which you see in the image above, depicted figures and scenes we would not expect to see in the domain of the Divine Office.


These images could take the form of grotesques or babewyns (hybrids), lascivious vignettes, or even scenes of quotidian lay life. In my next post, I'll discuss the function of these images, why they'd be permitted in a sacred space, and, perhaps of most interest, what they have to do with a monk's buttocks.

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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.

Posted in art, illuminated manuscripts, manuscripts, medieval art 101 | 1 Comment »

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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Posted by gninja on May 30, 2006

Every few days or so (read: whenever my fancy is struck) I'll be devoting a post to a concept necessary to understanding medieval art. The majority of these will be constructs consciously employed by medieval artists or thinkers, although to mix things up I'll throw in a discussion of some methods art historians commonly use today when addressing medieval art.

As the title above indicates, today's 101 lesson is in typology. According to medieval exegetes, everything in the Old Testament could be interpreted as a prefiguration of a specific event or events in the New Testament. The Old Testament episode is known as the type, while the New Testament episode is referred to as the antitype.

Viewing events prior to the incarnation of Christ in such a systematic manner is necessary to the theology of Christianity. Time, or history, is not simply the linear progression of events, but rather the move towards a telos ("end") which is determined by how our actions (and the actions of our ancestors) relate to the incarnation, death, resurrection, and Parousia ("second coming") of Christ. This is known as Christological Time.

Because the Old Testament is the tradition from which Christianity arose, it would've resulted in some serious cognitive dissonance for Christians to neglect the words of God as related in the OT. Moreover, the VIPs of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and Isaac can't be thrown in the garbage heap as heretics, since they lived prior to the Incarantion. How very unfair (though, truth be told, the Judeo-Christian God isn't always a paragon of fairness, now is He?). The solution? Read their lives as typologies.

How this plays out in the art of the Middle Ages is the topic I'll tackle tomorrow.

But, for now, I leave you with something salacious. The Song of Songs, otherwise known as the Song of Solomon (the purported author). This extended love poem, to be found in every legit copy of the Bible– check your hotel room night-tables, kitties– is filled with some of the sexiest descriptions in literature and was the typological foundation for a high medieval form of religiosity known as affective piety. I'll get to that at some other time. What's important for now is that this steamy piece of biblical literature was read by exegetes as a description of Christ's love for the Ecclesia, aka the Church, aka the Virgin Mary. I guess if you're the Son of God, really loving your mom is cool.

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