AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART III: The Monastic Scriptorium

THE MONASTIC SCRIPTORIUM

In the Middle Ages all books were written by hand To make a book, one needed a person who was Latin literate and had time to spare; an exemplar, from which the text could be copied; ink, which had to be made from iron shavings and gall; and vellum, or parchment, which involved skinning a calf and preparing the skin to be used as a writing surface. If illustrations were needed, pigments had to be ground from minerals or extracted from plants. Up until the thirteenth century, the Benedictine monasteries alone had the human and material resources sufficient to the undertaking. Each abbey had a library where exemplars were found and scriptorium, where teams of monks, already well-versed in Latin, and trained in calligraphy, copied new ones. Books were not produced in quantity and brought to market; they were produced as needed, and were largely intended for use in the monastery, or in an affiliated house. A large copy of the Vulgate Bible, a specialty of the 11th and 12th centuries, could take an entire scriptorium years to produce. A surprising number of images of monastic scribes at work survive from this period, and show monks seated at a desk, with quill and a knife to keep it sharp, writing in an open book. An unusually grand portrait of the scribe Eadwine, concludes the copy of the Psalms that he made at the cathedral-priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, in the 1160s. He seen in the same pose and general setting as an evangelist or classical author portrait. An inscription winds around the image’s border at once defines Eadwine’s work as a humble form of devotion and calls attention to his great technical skills. . Significantly, it is the scribe who is considered worthy of such a monumental portrait, not the illuminator who made the portrait, a hierarchy that stems from the New Testament, which described Christ as logos, or the word made flesh. A clever representation of scribal technique more in keeping with monastic humility is is found in the Wedricus Psalter, made in northern France in 1147. As convention dictated, the author portrait of John shows the evangelist in the act of composing his gospel. In a border roundel to the right, a miniature image of Wedricus, the abbot, who holds out an ink horn into which the monumental saint dips his quill. The subservient nature of the scribe serving holy scripture through his work is underscored both contrasting the acts of authoring v. assisting and by the use hierarchically-scaled figures. Eadwine’s manuscript was destined for study. The majority of Romanesque manuscripts, however, were liturgical, meaning meant to be used in the performance of the Mass. Each of the various celebrants would have had a books containing the scriptural excerpts to be read aloud during the service, arranged according to the church calendar. These service books were not only important because they contained divine scripture and because the were actually carried, read from, and kissed at Mass. A sacramentary made by local monks for use in the cathedral of Limoges around 1100 uses hieratic, stylized figure and costly materials because they are of sufficient to the text’s dignity and because during the Mass, the book would appear among liturgical objects made of ivory, gold, precious stones and sumptuous fabrics and had to register a similar degree of luxury. Wealthy laypeople wishing to emulate monastic devotion could use a psalter to follow the monastic liturgy, or Divine Office, which involved chanting the complete cycle of 150 psalms every week. A spectacular example is the psalter made by the monks of St Albans for Christina of Markyate, a local noblewoman, who had retired to a convent under their supervision. The St Albans psalter begins with a series of 77 full-page illuminations depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the life of Christ. This unusually extensive cycle served as a pictorial introduction to the text of the psalms, reminding Christina to understand the Old Testament text within the context of Christ’s life, or, more generally, Christianity. By means of carefully selected narrative details, sensitively rendered expressions and gestures that substitute for speech, the artist make scripture more vivid for the lay reader, which would inspire greater devotion. with a few notable exceptions, psalters made for the use of monks generally have very short prefatory cycles, if any at all. Therefore, the proliferation of images in the St Albans Psalter argues strongly for use by a layperson. The devotional image, it seems, was thought to be useful for the novice but not for the vocational spirituality of the monk. Art history is a discipline of images which leads to an over-emphasis on full-page illuminations or pictures and a tendency to neglect the more purely book-related visual and pictorial systems found in manuscripts such as pen flourishes, border decoration and historiated initials. The latter exist literally and figuratively somewhere in between text and image, and it is this hybridity that makes them one of the most creative genres of the twelfth century (carved capitals being another). Some of these initials use the shape of the letter as a framing device or architecture in which figures are inserted, like the letter V that begins the book of Jeremiah in the Winchester Bible (c. 1130). Here, Jeremiah, stands in the initial, which is at once legible but also serves as a setting (a grape arbor and ground line in this case) in which the figures interact. This type of historiated initial efficiently serves two purposes: it provides the reader with a navigational device, each signifying the beginning of a new book of the bible, and a space on the page for an abbreviated kind of illustration. The painting in these images is of the same high quality as the full-page images and were painted by the master illuminator, which suggest these initials were of the same importance as the more purely pictorial miniatures. In the other widely used variant, the letter is formed of human, animal or vegetal elements. In a job of Gregory the Great’s commentary on the book of Job, made at the abbey of Cîteaux in the year 1111, the initials marking the main textual divisions are cleverly fashioned from scenes related to monastic life, including labor, figured as the cutting down of a tree, which serves as the letter “I” (Incipit) or the monastic ideal of “spiritual warfare,” rendered as a warrior slaying a dragon, both of which form the letter “R” (Reverentissimo). The same manuscript has other initials that depict animals and acrobats engaged in enigmatic activity that must have had a meaning for its audience that eludes us today.

AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART:

I: Saint Denis and Gothic Art

II: The Carolingian Renovatio

III: Romanesque Manuscripts

IV: Grisaille, or The Abstention from Color

V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

VI: Beauvais Cathedral and the Limits of Gothic Verticality

VII: The Harrowing of Hell

VIII: The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial

IX: The Art of the Dark Ages

X:  Simone Martini’s Saints

XI: Sainte-Foy de Conques

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