KATHERINE A. POWERS
fall, the John J. Burns Library, Boston College's repository of
special collections, was host to a rare assembly of medieval volumes.
On display under glass in the library's gothic stone halls were
70 illuminated manuscripts brought together from European and American
collections, the oldest dating back to A.D. 450.
A few of these relics were mere swatches or single leaves from volumes
now lost. Many were heftier survivors, a tribute to the durability
of vellum -- a fine parchment made from young animal skin that has
been soaked, limed, unhaired, and stretched to dry.
The exhibit, entitled "The Art of the Book: A Journey Through
a Thousand Years," also included 30 early printed volumes,
or incunabula -- among them a Gutenberg Bible, circa 1455.
In the pages of these resplendent books, medieval Europeans measured
their days, defined their world, and gave thanks and praise for
both, with a fervor that allowed, on occasion, for humor and whimsy.
Essayist Katherine A. Powers viewed the works on exhibit. Her observations
TRUTHS (click image
We find the four Evangelists stationed at the corners of this illumination,
each holding his Gospel with a determined grip: Matthew's got his
in his hands; Mark, the lion, in his big old paws; Luke, the ox,
in extravagantly cloven hooves; and John, the eagle, in his talons.
Whether the Evangelists' minds have the same sure grip on the Scriptures
is, to judge from the expressions on their faces, doubtful indeed:
Matthew is bemused, Mark baffled, Luke affably ditsy, and poor John,
the most intellectual and spiritual of the four, is thoroughly distressed.
Enigmatic, faintly poignant, this illumination supports the idea
that these fellows are conveying a message of which they are not
the authors. They have merely transcribed the Word of Christ, who
appears in the middle. You might think this points to the centrality
of divine revelation as set down in the Scriptures -- maybe even
to the doctrine of sola scriptura -- that Truth is to be
found in Scripture alone, accessible to all.
But no. The situation depicted is actually subversive of Scripture.
Though the four Evangelists have their books open, their minds are
perplexed. And there is Jesus Christ, serenely magisterial, his
book closed. From this surely we must understand that Truth, the
Word, is not to be had from books but from teaching. It is a strange
illustration to find in a book itself -- or maybe not, for paradox
is central to the teaching of Christ.
(click image to enlarge)
King David sits ensconced in the E of Exultate, the
beginning of Psalm 81 (which begins, "Sing aloud unto God our
strength: make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob"). He is
banging away at the timbrel, making that joyful noise. If he's looking
grim while he's doing it, it's because he's got business to tend
to. His diligent psalming and clanging has finally dispatched the
upended person in red, a worshiper of false gods, now tumbling down
to damnation. Peering down into the E, God seems happy enough,
but what are we to make of the creatures to the right of the action?
To attempt to interpret the drawings that embellish manuscripts
is to set foot on the slippery slope to nonsense. Many will dismiss
their meaning, observing that those who transcribed these texts
added borders and images merely to amuse themselves. So? Are amusement
and meaningful depiction mutually exclusive? Certainly, interpreting
images and amusing oneself are not. In that spirit, let us ask whether
David, old sobersides here, isn't the object of sport.
Just a few psalms away, number 103 may give us a clue when it conjures
the image of satisfying "thy mouth with the good things, so
that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's." And, yes, there
is David perched on a vine, with the body of an eagle, eyes trained
somewhere off to the right. Above him sits an ape, the very symbol
of man's fallen nature, not only in his intellectual pride, but
in his sexuality. That red hippopotamus -- or bear or dog -- is
definitely in on the joke. He's laughing his head off watching the
priapic monkey stuffing his mouth with the good things before him.
(We will not even ask what that rude thing hanging from his vine
is, pointing at David.) These three characters have no interest
in David's present occupation, but seem to be alluding to David's
carryings-on with Bathsheba. In this illumination, as in the previous
one, humanity's imperfection is portrayed with appreciation for
(click image to enlarge)
The last notion in the world we associate with life in the Middle
Ages is convenience, and yet here, from the turn of the 13th century,
is a handy accouterment: a portable calendar. Ideal for the business
or ecclesiastical traveler, this model is of durable vellum backed
with leather, finished in once-red fabric, and featuring a fitted
leather traveling case. Designed for accessibility, it is customarily
worn suspended from a cord attached to the waist. How modern it
is in its aura of utility! It speaks of autonomy and independence,
and evokes the individual and mobility, the busy, busy man of the
closer look at the page shown reveals that we are looking at the
month of March. The numerals here don't seem to apply exactly to
the days of the month, but counting down lines from the top we find
the feasts of saints Felicitas and Perpetua on the sixth and the
seventh, Saint Gregory on the 12th, a vigil on the 24th, and on
the 25th, "Notre Dame," the Feast of the Annunciation,
the great holy day that at that time in France marked the first
day of the year. The rest of the saints are probably local ones
-- every region had a quiverful. The first and the 28th have red
Ss marked against them to the right. These are March's two
dangerous days, or dies aegyptiaci, so called not because
they are unlucky in the Egyptian calendar, but because Egyptians
were considered adepts at augury. The maker of this book strikes
me as having been a no-nonsense guy with business projects on his
mind. To that end, he has given Monday, not Sunday, pride of place,
designating it A.
The folding calendar, you might say, is the perfect gift for the
man on the go -- even, it seems, for Jesus. According to the exhibit's
notes, a medieval passion play by Arnoul Greban contains a scene
in which shepherds discuss what gift to give the Christ Child. A
particularly bright spark suggests one of these numbers: a gift,
he boasts, sure to "give Him advantage."
(click image to enlarge)
In this volume we discover that the afterlife is not quite so unworldly
as many of us had assumed, for it seems that nothing less than the
practice of law endures. Here, the Devil, or Belial, the spiky-haired
chap with the cloven hooves and courteous manner, has brought suit
against Christ for having redeemed souls from the netherworld. This,
charges Belial, is an invasion of his territory. In the top frame
we see him receiving his brief back from God the Father.
But why is God handing it back? Surely He would make the ideal judge,
as it was understood that all law emanated from Him.
Not in this case, for He bears a familial relationship to Christ,
and so has properly recused Himself. But there is another reason
to get Him out of the picture. This volume, according to the notes,
served as a legal textbook. If God were to judge this case, what
would be learned except His decision?
So, as we see in the bottom frame, Belial, looking less green about
the gills than he did when approaching God, presents his now swollen-looking
brief to Solomon. That venerable adjudicator accepts it, and the
case quickly becomes complicated as the story plays out, with Moses,
Joseph, David, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Octavian, and Aristotle all getting
involved. The presence of the pagan ancients illustrates how reasonable
and permanent is the law; and, happily, Belial loses his case.
(click image to enlarge)
In the words of the exhibit catalog, what we have here is "North-East
Italy; Venice (?), c. 1400."
"?" is right. By it, those who have provided the notes
to the exhibit mean they don't know for sure if the map came from
Venice. For my part, I wish I knew which side of it is meant to
be "up"; or, thinking it over, whether its maker intended
one to be. You will notice, as I did after scouting out all the
magnifying glasses in the house, that the writing simply follows
the coast; so, no matter how you turn it, the names of some towns
will always be upside down. That's just the beginning: What exactly
are we looking at? Which part is sea, which land? What is that important-seeming
Well, it's Sicily, of course; and by our lights the whole thing
is upside down. That's the coast of Africa on top, with Venice (Venezia)
almost at the bottom and Ravenna (Rauena) up a little from it on
the right. The southwest coast of Italy, including Rome, doesn't
even appear. Despite photographs from outer space and the worthy
efforts of cartographers who have come up with non-Eurocentric maps,
most of us probably think of the world as we find it depicted on
conventional maps and globes. It's our reality, an accessible, material
reality, available in a standardized form. And yet, looking at this
map, so strange in emphasis, so upside down, we may wonder if we've
got hold of the truth about the earth, or about anything.
Katherine A. Powers writes the column "My Back Pages"
for the Boston Sunday Globe. Her essay on convicted murderer
Thomas Capano appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of BCM.
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