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The Illustrated Life: Notes on the Medieval Imagination

Majestis Domini PhotographBY KATHERINE A. POWERS

Last 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 follow.

Majestis Domini PhotographGOSPEL TRUTHS (click image to enlarge)
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.

JOYFUL NOISE (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 its comedy.

THE PERFECT GIFT (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 world.

A 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."

BEAT THE DEVIL (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.

WORLDVIEW (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 green-bordered triangle?

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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