Have you ever looked at a medieval manuscript and marvelled at its great age and its survival, and, in some cases, near perfect condition?
Almost anyone who sees – or is lucky enough to handle – such rare and precious items must feel, at the very least, a frisson of excitement at this direct link with the past.
How many hours went into any one manuscript? Literally thousands!
Someone meticulously wrote every word by hand, and patiently drew and coloured by hand every ornament and decoration. And what of the paintings, known as miniatures, many gloriously enhanced with gold and silver leaf or paint?
Whether to delight the eye or reinforce the stories, medieval book paintings are an art form in their own right.
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Why Paint Pictures in Medieval Manuscripts: What Was Their Purpose?
Why did scribes paint pictures in medieval manuscripts? Was it simply, as Ilana Tahon says in Hebrew Manuscripts The Power of Script and Image, ″to express their belief in the Creator and the written word,″ or did the images have another purpose?
At a basic level, images add detail to stories. Priests read Bible stories to students, and the pictures helped them remember those stories. Images can also be devotional icons, like the magnificent gilded depiction of the Crucifixion in the Registrum Prioratus Ecclesiae Christi Cantuariensis, which focuses the mind on the Passion of Christ.
Miniatures not only illustrated stories: they conveyed ideas and evoked emotions. Readers felt joy, humour, sadness, or sensations of great beauty or dreadful ugliness.
Images act as landmarks helping readers navigate through books with no index or page numbering system. In some cases the images are directly linked to the text they adorn.
Sometimes the images depict stories associated with the text, but not necessarily directly related to it. In a time when so many people could not read, the pictures helped them understand and remember the text. Sometimes the pictures give a fascinating glimpse into the history of the region and the lives of people who created the text. Just occasionally they are there simply to delight the eye.
Manuscripts with images, both religious and secular, made the text more vivid, more memorable, and certainly more enjoyable to use.
Pictures to Help Navigation
The miniaturist, the artist creating the pictures, had a number of visual devices in his repertoire.
Different sized initials, decorated in various ways, allowed readers to find the beginnings of new chapters, or important passages.
For example, on Folio 13 of the Thorney Gospels (British Library Add.40000) we see a full-page initial “L.” The letter, marking the start of Matthew’s Gospel, has a geometric zigzag pattern with floral decoration. Compared to some initials, this one is almost plain.
In a manuscript of Dante’s Divina Commedia (British Library Yates Thompson 36) we see a magnificently gilded initial “P” occupying the full height of the page.
The historiated capital shows a little ship, sails hoisted, setting sail for Purgatory with Virgil and Dante on board. Created in Siena in the 1440s for Alfonso V, King of Naples, the gilding reflects the wealth and status of its owner.
Some Miniatures Reveal Local History
Some miniatures reflect the social history of the region in which they originated. In Spain, in the early 15th century, anti-Semitic feelings were running wild with Judeo-Christian relations at an all-time low.
In 1422, Don Luis de Guzman of Maqueda, a high-ranking Spanish churchman, asked a local Hebrew scholar, Rabbi Moses de Arragel of Guadalajara, to translate the Hebrew Bible into Castilian. The translation would have a commentary showing the Jewish point of view. Guzman believed if local people understood the Jewish point of view, then relations would improve.
Arragel had serious reservations about the project. He believed the new bible and its commentary would increase anti-Semitism. He also reminded Guzman of the prohibition against illustrated Hebrew texts. Guzman simply hired a team of Christian artists to produce the pictures.
Folio 1v shows Guzman instructing Arragel to produce the translation. Shown with uncut hair and a beard, Arragel complies with a statute of 2nd January 1412 compelling Jewish men to wear long hair and beards.
The outstanding feature on Folio 1v is the purple and gold capital ‘P’ standing half the height of the page indicating the start of an important passage of text. A four-sided border of flowers and foliage occupied by amusing characters and bizarre creatures surrounds the entire page.
In the long-term it seems that Rabbi Arragel was right. Relations worsened, resulting in the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
The Alba Bible is in the collection of the House of Alba, and is on show in the Palace of Liria, in Madrid.
How Images Relate to Text
Some of the most intriguing and delightful images appear in the margins of medieval manuscripts. Winged dragons, serpents and weird animals of every kind, as well as men and women in strange or ridiculous poses, battle their way through foliage. In some cases they appear to have no connection with the text they adorn.
On folio 60 of The Barcelona Haggadah (British Library Additional 14761) we see a young man roasting the Passover lamb.
At the foot of the page is a winged creature, unrelated to the text. Is he there merely to delight the eye and perhaps bring a little humour into the Seder, the Passover service traditionally held in most Jewish homes?
Secular texts, such as books on philosophy, medicine, music or mathematics also have illustrations and diagrams. Some are elaborately gilded while others are relatively plain.
Folio 15v of Institutiones, Book I Oratio, The Seven Liberal Arts (British Library Harley 2637), shows philosophy split into seven sub-sections: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.
The diagram is an integral part of the text. Without it the text would make very little sense.
Illustrations to Delight the Eye
In the Middle Ages illustrations were a key element in manuscript production. Whether to enhance the readability of a book, or merely to delight the eye, there is no doubt that these miniatures are a beautiful art form in their own right. They tell us about life in medieval times and link us directly to the distant past. Little did they know, those dedicated monks and scribes, that their painstakingly hand-written and illustrated pages would be such a valuable legacy in the 21st century.