Graeme Dunphy

title.none: Holladay, Illuminating the Epic: The Kassel Willehalm Codex (Dunphy)

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.014 00.07.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Graeme Dunphy, University of Regensburg,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Holladay, Joan. Illuminating the Epic: The Kassel Willehalm Codex and the Landgraves of Hesse in the Early Fourteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 246. $50.00. ISBN: 0-295-97591-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.14

Holladay, Joan. Illuminating the Epic: The Kassel Willehalm Codex and the Landgraves of Hesse in the Early Fourteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998. Pp. xi, 246. $50.00. ISBN: 0-295-97591-1.

Reviewed by:

Graeme Dunphy
University of Regensburg

The Kassel Willehalm Codex is a magnificent example of an illustrated vellum manuscript of the fourteenth century. Like the comparable Heidelberg and Vienna codices, it contains the text of the "Willehalm trilogy", that is, the Willehalm of Wolfram von Eschenbach prefaced by Ulrich von dem Turlein's Arabel and followed by Ulrich von Turheim's Rennewart. Commissioned by Landgrave Heinrich II of Hesse in 1334, the manuscript runs to 396 folios and in part is beautifully illustrated. Originally there were to be 425 miniatures, though only 58 were attempted and only 30 of these completed. Despite the gaps in the art work, however, the sheer proportions of the conception and the high quality of its execution make this codex a remarkable treasure.

The most important examination of the work hitherto conducted from an art-historical perspective was that by Robert Freyhan (1927). He held that the illustrations were purely decorative and he led the received opinion in concentrating attention on strictly aesthetic questions. Illuminating the Epic is a new study by Joan Holladay which takes our thinking about the manuscript forward in a number of ways. Though its main perspective is that of the art historian, it never loses sight of the relationship of image to text and is therefore of equal interest to the literary scholar. Above all, however, the author seeks to place the whole conception of the codex in the context of its patron's political ambitions, thus revealing the programmatic co-operation of art and literature.

The presence of the patron in the manuscript can hardly be overlooked. The double pictorial reference at the beginning of the Arabel and the written docket at the end of the Rennewart are, as Holladay demonstrates, an insistent statement of intent, framing the entire work. This is unusual in itself, especially in a manuscript with a secular text. More interesting still is the stipulation that the work should remain in the possession of the family in perpetuity, a wish which was indeed respected in the subsequent history of the manuscript until modern times. Holladay can point to a number of partial parallels, but shows that these are concerned primarily with the inheritance of a valuable item of property. Of the other manuscripts discussed, none displays the personal commitment to ownership which is implied in the celebration of patronage in the Kassel codex. The insistence of the scribe points to a fundamental significance linking the future of the manuscript with the fate of the succession of the landgraviate.

This programmatic significance of the codex can be explained in at least three ways, probably all of which are operational at once. In the first place, Heinrich understood himself to be descended from Willehalm, who of course was regarded as a saint and in no sense as a fictional character. Heinrich is known to have maintained links with the Order of St. William, and the exceptional character of the Carolingian hero was important in itself for the legitimisation of the Hessian ruling house. Secondly, there were parallels between the Willehalm story and events in Heinrich's own family history, parallels which allowed the text--if suitably interpreted--to support Heinrich's position in contemporary local conflicts. And thirdly, Willehalm projects a concept of the ideal relationship between kings and princes which made it a popular work in all the German courts, but particularly in Hesse, where the ruling family had always taken a lead in espousing this political philosophy. Though none of this is new, Holladay shows considerable insight in identifying these factors as the immediate context for the decision of this court to commission a Willehalm manuscript.

While this is convincing in itself as a general motivation for the production of the work, Holladay is able to go further, arguing that these three factors are also pursued in detail in the development of the codex. An interesting feature of the artist's conception is that not all parts of the trilogy were to be equally endowed with miniatures. Rennewart was to be most lavishly illustrated, followed by Arabel, with Willehalm receiving the fewest miniatures proportional to its length, though in modern eyes Willehalm is seen as aesthetically the best of the three works. Equally, within each section, the illustrations come in clusters, one sequence being heavily illustrated, the next sparsely. Comparisons with the Heidelberg and Vienna codices show that the choices made were often idiosyncratic. This irregularity of illustration is apparent from a simple viewing of the manuscript, but Holladay is the first to thematize and attempt to explain it. She seeks to demonstrate that each of the three factors which are seen as inspiring the commission of the work in the first place can also be drawn on to explain the specific choice of illustration.

The first of these, the importance of Willehalm as an ancestor, is the most difficult to demonstrate, as all Willehalm manuscripts extol the virtues of the hero by the very nature of the work. Nevertheless, Holladay can demonstrate that the Kassel codex is the only one to illustrate Willehalm's angelic vision or the later appearance of the Virgin to him, and more generally, that the two sides of his character, his heroism and his saintliness, are particularly highlighted.

The second factor, the championing of the local political causes of the patron, is somewhat clearer, and Holladay is able to make much of the illustration of the disinheritance scene, the immediate political relevance of which could not fail to strike the reader at the Hessian court; in 1294, Heinrich I had made known his decision to divide his land between the sons of his two marriages, and the politics of the subsequent years were dominated by Heinrich II's attempts to regain the totality of his father's estates. By highlighting the scene of Willehalm's disinheritance, the artist makes a statement about the present.

The third factor, Willehalm's value as a vehicle for an approach to imperial politics, provides a likely interpretation of the Munleun episode. Where most manuscripts illustrate Willehalm's breach of etiquette, the Kassel codex depicts the provocation which led to it. Holladay also suggests that the absence of miniatures in the eight folios following this scene is intended to highlight this episode; the reader is left "with images of the king who fails in his feudal duty and the solidarity of the family who confronts him for this breach." Similarly elsewhere, as when the manuscript highlights the king's funding of Willehalm's cloister foundation, she sees comments being made on the contemporary balance of power. Holladay even suggests that the highlighting of passages with courtly scenes, banquets and tournaments, is evidence of this political programme, but here perhaps she stretches her point: Willehalm is a courtly romance anyway. While it is easy to question the weightiness of some of the supporting evidence, however, the case for a conscious and calculated planning of the programme of illustrations has been powerfully made. On very specific political issues, the conception of the codex is shown to have an identifiable agenda.

Holladay concludes her study by placing the codex in the context of a wider programme of symbolic activity at the court in Marburg. The 1280s saw important building works on the castle, first a palace chapel, then a knight's hall. In the same period, the family tombs at the Church of St. Elizabeth were begun. Holladay discusses these in some detail, giving as an interesting little aside a theory regarding the tomb of Heinrich the younger. Her point is that, in several directions at once, the family were expressing themselves in art, producing "legitimizing, self-proclaiming statements" which re- enforced precisely the programme which she has discovered in the codex. Furthermore, these building works incorporate stylistic elements linking Marburg to Cologne, as does the codex. This may simply be because Cologne, as an important artistic centre, was the obvious source of skilled craftsmen, but Holladay suggests also that the forces of fashion played a role.

A short but convincing study, well written and eminently readable, with good appendices containing genealogical tables and comprehensive codicological data, a full index, and above all over a hundred plates of photographic reproductions from the codices and views of the architecture discussed.