Joel Fredell

title.none: Williams, The Illustrated Beatus (Joel Fredell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0408.007 04.08.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joel Fredell, Southeastern Louisiana University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, Volume Five, The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003. Pp. 416. $177.00 0-905203-95-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.08.07

Williams, John. The Illustrated Beatus: A Corpus of the Illustrations of the Commentary on the Apocalypse, Volume Five, The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003. Pp. 416. $177.00 0-905203-95-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Joel Fredell
Southeastern Louisiana University

A large publication project comes to a close with this volume: all 27 extant manuscripts and fragments which illustrate the Apocalypse Commentary by Beatus of Liebana are given substantial catalogue entries in the five volumes which constitute this series; more impressively, all the illustrations (some 2000 in total) are reproduced, grouped conveniently in the volume which describes their manuscript and its contemporaries. The series itself deserves a full review, since this occasion can only glance back at the earlier volumes from the appearance of volume 1 in 1994. In that first volume Williams modestly proposes to offer the series as a "handbook [...] for those for whom the Beatus tradition poses questions" (I.8). Volume Five follows the pattern established by its predecessors, though it offers some final reflections on a variety of opinions offered by the author earlier in the series. Williams also includes in this volume a recently-discovered fragment from San Pedro de Leon dated c. 1000. Interested readers will want to consult the complete series, and one hopes their numbers may be, if not legion, at least larger than the relatively few specialists who have focused on this tradition so far.

As Williams notes, the Beatus Apocalypse has attracted some sustained and distinguished attention from scholars such as Wilhelm Neuss and Peter Klein. Nonetheless, one reason this tradition deserves more attention in the current scholarly climate, where questions of text and image arouse widespread interest, is its boundaries. These manuscripts were produced almost exclusively in northern Spain; their texts and iconographic traditions remain independent of any other Apocalype series in Europe; consequently the design and content of both texts and programs of miniatures remain remarkably intact throughout. Beatus compiled his commentary in northern Spain around 776 CE, spawning a tradition of deluxe manuscripts with elaborate programs of miniatures. This Apocalypse tradition lasted at least to the middle of the thirteenth century in Hispanic manuscripts. The use of a single commentary over six centuries is notably different from English witnesses, to take one northern European parallel, which can include the Latin commentary of Berengaudus, French prose glosses, both at once (as in the magnificent Douce Apocalypse), or various other vernacular compilations. Such variability complicates any discussion of text and image, or iconographic changes. The Beatus manuscripts, by contrast, present their iconographic programs with a particular purity because larger textual questions simply do not intervene.

This series, reproducing the entire corpus of Beatus programs, consequently has much to recommend it as a resource for medievalists interested in the vast riches left by several centuries of Apocalypse fever. The sheer consistency of the Beatus tradition offers a sound baseline for all sorts of art historical and textual analysis. Literary and religious scholars will be interested to know that the text and commentary are divided up into 68 sections, termed storiae, each of which include several verses and a series of exegetical commentaries. A bonus for this group is St. Jerome's commentary on the Book of Daniel, which follows the Apocalypse commentary in many copies. Art historians will be interested in the 108 "canonical" images which appear with such regularity: 68 images based on the narrative, which appear immediately after the relevent storiae; 7 images based on the commentary, including a mappa mundi, and the Woman and the Beast; 8 prefatory miniatures of Evangelists and their Gospels; 14 pages outlining the genealogy of Christ (with heads in circles like so many Kilroys peering out over the bottom curve); and 11 illustrations for Jerome's Commentary on Daniel, including the famous statue of Nebuchadnezzar which finds its way into illuminations of the poetry of Machaut and Gower.

Readers who would like the observations of Williams on these riches are again advised to seek out volume I. Here he does provide some insights into broad thematic changes as the tradition develops from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. As Williams points out, the Apocalypse becomes an important text for peninsular Muslim/Christian relations. By the ninth century, for instance, Muhammed was regularly identified with the Antichrist by Spanish Christians, and the eventual disintegration of relationships between the two faiths there could easily be seen in eschatological terms (I.131-132). Stylistic changes are taken up with some regularity also, but not changes in iconographic content or comparisons with other contemporary Apocalypse programs in northern Europe.

Volume V, like the volumes II-IV in the series, does not offer any of this kind of discussion--understandable given the purpose of the catalogues, but sadly missed. Williams has some solid justifications for his approach by historical period, and the many strengths of this series spring from these boundaries to his organization. First, full and discursive catalogue entries always find a warm welcome among scholars, particularly when they acknowledge remaining difficulties and dissenting opinions. This approach is one of the great virtues of the Beatus series. Williams offers notably essay-like descriptions of each manuscript, entries which are a pleasure to read. The crucial questions--provenance, stemmatic position, illustrating hands, dating--receive thorough coverage. Broader themes of iconographic and cultural developments are largely left aside here, but most of the questions raised in these descriptions have fruitful parallels in the other manuscripts contained in the volume, so readers are generally spared keeping all five volumes constantly by. A section on the "material character" of the manuscript provides more codicological information--mainly ruling (helpfully illustrated in all cases) and trimming, though Williams often supplies tables that reconstruct gatherings. A substantial (though not annotated) bibliography follows. Somewhere in the latter part of the description an illustration (typically an illuminated initial from the manuscript, though occasionally a text page with marginal notes or a colophon) appears.

Williams provides several other useful features: second thoughts and corrections on the preceding volumes, stemmae comparing Williams' proposed textual families with those of Neuss and Klein, tables of subjects, illustrations and their locations, a brief description of all 27 manuscripts covered in the series, an index of manuscripts, a fairly functional general index, a listing of the contents of all the volumes in the series, and endpaper maps which detail all the relevant locales in Spain and nearby. One less common feature is a full transcription of inscriptions in and accompanying the miniatures. Text and image scholars, take note! The bulk of the volume (pp. 53-369) is then taken up with the illustrations themselves. The illustrations are conveniently organized by manuscript, identified with running heads; brief captions indicate each illustration's subject. These reproductions are uniformly clear and crisp. In sum, the catalogue fulfills quite well the traditional demands of the genre, and its author's mastery of his area does not prevent him from acknowledging differing opinions or remaining difficulties.

Finally, with the completion of a project of this scope and ambition we must have a look at its conception against the harsh realities of a changing field since the series began in 1994. Undoubtedly the catalogue entries and the complete corpus of illustrations is a tremendous resource. At the same time, projects like these invite questions about allocation of resources. The apparent niche this work seeks to fill is among art historians; hence the chopping-out of images from their context on the page in nearly all 2000 instances. One need not be a literary scholar to bemoan this approach-some of the manuscripts covered in this series are gorgeous examples of complex page layout, with image and text interacting on the page dynamically. A beautiful example of this interaction can be found in a facsimile of the Morgan Beatus, also presented under the guidance of Williams back in 1991. Even here, however, only the pages with illuminations are deemed worthy of reproduction, a policy which seems archaic given the broader interdisciplinary audiences who approach medieval manuscripts today. Williams' bibliography attests several facsimiles already reproducing about a third of the extant illustrated Beatus manuscripts. Why devote five volumes to twenty-seven manuscripts and the lesser satisfactions of illustrations removed from their context in the codices? Will this project stimulate or undercut efforts to get the full and full-color digital facsimiles which have become welcome and increasingly commonplace resources? This presentation of the Beatus manuscripts is monumental and useful, but it leaves one hungering for more. Of course, that may be one of its best features.