John Williams

title.none: Mentre, The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain (Williams)

identifier.other: baj9928.9706.006 97.06.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Williams, University of Pittsburgh,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Mentre, Mireille. The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain. Translated by Jennifer Wakelyn. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. Pp. 304. $75.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-500-01732-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.06.06

Mentre, Mireille. The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain. Translated by Jennifer Wakelyn. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996. Pp. 304. $75.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-500-01732-8.

Reviewed by:

John Williams
University of Pittsburgh

This is a book about "Christian painting in the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and the eleventh centuries." It will be a godsend for those who have wanted to expand the manuscript section of their Spanish Medieval slide collection. The intended audience for the text is harder to pin down. It is conceived ambitiously, with sections on "religious context," "religion and politics," "meaning of the term Mozarabic," etc., as it well might be, for the author is responsible for the longest bibliography on the topic, in studies that started appearing more than a quarter of a century ago. The book is a valuable bibliographic treasury. Analysis and evaluation are, nevertheless, rare. For example, in the discussion of the invention of the term "Mozarabic" for an artistic movement, the reader is rightly told that Gomez-Moreno opted for the term because the distinctive stylistic personality given to Spanish art of the period "derived essentially from the Islamic art of Al- Andalus" (25). However, she goes on to say that "Much of Gomez-Moreno's work has been challenged," without taking the opportunity to engage the issue herself through an evaluation of the grounds and justice of the challenges. Interest in the Mozarabic issue is so down-played, in fact, that the tenth-century Biblia Hispalense, the single surviving illuminated manuscript that is literally Mozarabic, that is, produced by Christians living under Muslim rule, receives only passing mention and its superb art is represented by one small black and white reproduction. More importance is attached to vague contributions from traditions farther away in time and place, stemming from the "centuries of continuous contact with a range of cultures including, notably, Egypt, Byzantium, Ireland and Lerins." This appeal to earlier and distant traditions is justified by the author because "in the tenth century, [the spiritual and cultural climate] was based upon the broad heritage of Hispano-Visigothic culture" (48). Broadly speaking this is true, but artistically this claim is problematic. Her one chance to show the perseverance of tradition through a subject for which there is a Visigothic example does not reinforce the author's conclusion about the importance of past tradition. The subject is the Rose of the Winds in the Spanish Verona Orational (il. p. 67) of around 700. It is claimed (69) that the Rose of the Winds "reappears, virtually unchanged, in the Leon Bible of 920." In fact, what in the Orational is a circle enclosing four trifons wind personifications blowing horns has become, in the Bible, a star-shaped scheme with points terminating in twelve separate heads. Yet the main difference, she says, is that the cross has been removed from the center and placed at the top (69)! In comparison to the appeal to ancient and remote sources, the important and indisputable Carolingian influences from the north, while noted in passing, receive little attention. The La Cava Bible, a superb Spanish illuminated manuscript of the ninth century, would have been a logical and necessary springboard for the discussion of antecedents if actual examples are to be taken into account, but it is not even referred to. This is not a new synthesis shaped by the author's authority.

The newness of the book is, in fact, an issue. Its origins are not candidly offered. We are told on the fly leaf that it is based on La peinture mozarabe, copyrighted in 1994, but that text was, in fact, essentially the book of the same title published by the author in a modest format by Presses de l'Universite de Paris Sorbonne in 1984, which reworked material published in Spain in 1976 (the author tells us that this work won prizes in France and in Spain, but see the review by Peter Klein, Speculum, 1978, 600-01). This printing history reveals why it does not come across as a very fresh engagement with the material and it may offer some explanation for the lack of editing that the repetition, especially, calls for. It hardly excuses it.

The author's approach is essentially formalist, in an a- historical mode. For example, discussions of styles and particular ornamental vocabularies are not tied to scriptoria. It is said by the author that "Insecurity, mobility and constant change continually jeopardized the production of manuscripts and even the survival of scriptoria" (59), but most of the manuscripts analyzed were products of scriptoria that were obviously very stable: Valeranica, Cardena, Tabara, San Millan. If she were right in her attributions of manuscripts to Silos, it would have been active for a century and a half.

Although the book is primarily concerned with the formal aspects of the painting, iconography is not ignored. She attempts a demonstration of "the richness and complexity of the religious context in which these [Mozarabic] paintings were made" (57-9). It is carried out by means of a lengthy analysis of the Baptism of Christ (pl. 40) in the Girona copy of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse, the monastic text that provides most of her examples of Mozarabic painting. The Baptism (f. 189) fills the page facing the description of the Lamb of God on Mount Sion, Apoc. XIV, 1-5. The author initially suggests that this picture is a pictorial gloss on the passage in Apoc. XIV, 3-4, where 144,000 Virgin men sing the new song. Thus the picture would have been inspired by Beatus's commentary on this passage, in which the Virgins are said to proclaim Christ through baptism and the remission of sins. As luck would have it, however, in the Girona Beatus, the only copy of the Commentary (outside of its replica in Turin) where this illustration was introduced, the required passage was never included! Were this text present, it would be 163 folios away (f. 26v) from its purported pictorial gloss. Could a painter, programmer or reader really be expected to mentally unite the two when he opened the book at the site of the Baptism? It is more likely that the depiction of the Baptism was prompted by the text (Apoc. XIV, 1-5) that lies on the page facing this illustration. It states that the Lamb stands on Mount Sion in the company of one hundred and forty-four thousand Virgins who are marked on the forehead with the name of the Lamb and of the Father. For those, like monks, schooled in biblical symbolism this marking might well evoke the forehead signing that occurs at baptism. The opportunity to insert the picture arose from the fact that the traditional illustration of the Lamb on Mount Sion required a verso-recto double spread and had to be a page removed from the text it illustrated.

If the author's first explanation for the illustration of Christ's Baptism is unconvincing, she has offered an alternative that is equally flawed: it would have been a refutation of Adoptionism, the heresy attached to Elipandus, the Archbishop of Toledo, whose ferocious quarrel with Beatus guaranteed the latter's name would be remembered. According to Mentre, Adoptionism was "the primary motivation for the writing of Beatus's Commentary." In her characterization of Adoptionism, Jesus was adopted by God as his son at the time of his baptism. This, however, was not the understanding of either Elipandus, the author of Adoptionism, or of his antagonist, Beatus. (See John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, Philadelphia, 1993, 109). Indeed, were it so, the inclusion of this picture might be taken as an endorsement of the heresy. Even if her characterization of Adoptionism were correct, the claim that Beatus directed his Commentary at this heresy is difficult to reconcile with the fact that Beatus composed his Commentary a decade before Adoptionism surfaced. To support the idea of a connection between Adoptionism and the Beatus Commentary, Mentre cites Heil's discussion of Adoptionism in Karl der Grosse, ed. W. Braunfels, Bd II: Das geistige Leben, ed. B. Bischoff, Dusseldorf, l965, 95-l55; in fact, Heil denies the connection (p. 101).

The book is essentially about style; more particularly, style as content. In Chapter five, "Painting and Spirituality," it reaches its thematic climax, although at many earlier points the basic ideas have been exposed. Here one finds the dubious claim that the background bands of color that are the hallmark of the Beatus pictures help organize the pictures into coherent narrative units and that they are keyed at the same time to the anagogical underpinnings of the illustrations (144ff.). According to her, "Composition with backgrounds organized as zones of contrasting colour promotes the legibility of the narrative and, concurrently, the arrangement of the paintings on several levels corresponds to an elementary vision in which the sky or heaven, the divine realm, is placed at the top and the earth, as the human domain, is ultimately or at least in some part the domain of evil and is placed lowest (161)." This perception is contrasted by her with the view "of some writers [who] have expressed the opinion that the contents of Mozarabic illumination were scattered randomly across the page." (146). She cites, however, only a 1964 article by a single writer, James Snyder, and on the pages she refers to, Snyder is writing about the Carolingian Trier Apocalypse. In fact, later on (160) Snyder contrasts favorably the Beatus illustration in the Valladolid Beatus to one in the Trier manuscript, in being better organized and easier to read because the four horsemen uniformly move from right to left. In dealing with left and right in this same Valladolid image of the four horsemen (pl. 102), Mentre goes much further than claiming greater legibility. The horsemen enter the painting from the reader's right, she says, because "a pejorative connotation would attach to the riders if they entered the image from the left-hand side (162)." But according to the Commentary, with the exception of the first rider, who symbolizes in the Beatus Commentary the Word sent into the world by the Holy Spirit, the riders are to be interpreted pejoratively. Moreover, the author has reversed the respective values of direction. As any depiction of a Last Judgment tells you, when position does act as signifier in medieval art, left and right are not the viewer's but the image's. Finally, what faith in the text can a reader be expected to maintain when two pages earlier there is a plate (96) of one of the illustrations of Apoc. XIX, 11-16, where the Rider Faithful and True, interpreted as the Word of God in the Bible and in the Commentary, leads his mounted warriors, interpreted as the Church, from our left, that is, the side taken by the author as evil.

The spiritual interpretation of position is carried to another level, so to speak, in the section headed "The Temporal and the Transcendent" (170ff.). Here the point is again made that up is heavenly and down is earthly. For those examples where the heavenly is defined by a semi-circular frame she calls attention to alleged Byzantine prototypes, calling that fact, but without elaboration, "significant." In any case, to demonstrate parallels between Byzantine and Beatus conceptions, she takes the illustration of the Souls of the Slain under the Altar of Apoc. 6, 9-11 as illustrated in the Girona Beatus. Her comparison is with a Byzantine illustration in the ninth-century Vatican Cosmas Indicopleustes, a manuscript she refers to repeatedly (134, 135, 176), but without precisely explaining its relevance (were copies in Spain?). This whole enterprise turns out to be spectacularly misconceived: although formally divided into upper and lower levels, neither of the images compared illustrates anything but the heavenly. Far from confirming a point repeatedly made in this book about the alignment of spiritual hierarchy and pictorial space, the example undermines the assumption behind the method of this book, namely that the imagery is best approached through abstract conceptual schemata.

The thematic heart of the book and its claim to originality is perhaps best captured in this statement toward the end:

The reader will have to decide how much credence can be granted to a conclusion that cannot be confirmed by any evidence from the Mozarabic era itself, and to what extent the proposition is flawed by our inability to know just how stylistic components--color and space--might have been perceived in a pre-modern world that had not been exposed to Renaissance thinking about space and post-Renaissance analyses of color (see now Elizabeth Bolman, 'De Natura Colorum: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Color in Beatus Manuscripts' [Master's Thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1992]). To what extent could style have been the result of a deliberate choice? More illuminated copies of the religious texts she is dealing with were produced in the succeeding, Romanesque, period than in the Mozarabic, but in a less abstract and less colorful style. Were the illustrations emptied of affective meaning as a result? Does one conclude that the monks were no longer interested in illustrations that offered "a vision of ecstasy"? And what about non-Mozarabic spaceless and colorful early medieval styles? "Mozarabic art is, in fact, unique in its suggestion of transcendent forms and realities by means of ostensibly purely formal methods and solutions (115)."

The book opens with a foreword by the eminent French medievalist, Pierre Riche. His reputation is not based on published studies on Spanish history and art. Nevertheless, he pronounces on topics of some substance, but with unargued conclusions--he ascribes an anti-Islamic motive to the composition of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, denies that Beatus said anything about St. James in Spain and perceives Coptic, Ethiopian and Far Eastern (sic) influence in Mozarabic illumination--that are for this reviewer problematic.