03.01.37, Joslin and Watson, Egerton Genesis

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Katrin Kogman-Appel

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.037


Joslin, Mary Coker and Carolyn Coker Joslin Watson. The Egerton Genesis. The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronoto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. xxviii, 311. ISBN: 0-8020-4758-0.

Reviewed by:
Katrin Kogman-Appel
Ben Gurion University of the Negev

The Egerton Genesis is a presentation of a picture book, which, although long well known to scholars of illuminated manuscripts has not yet fully been studied. The manuscript was published in 1921 by Montague Rhodes James in a facsimile edition (Illustrations of the Book of Genesis: Being a Complete Reproduction in Facsimile of the Manuscript British Museum, Egerton 1894 [Oxford, 1921]). James identified it as an English work from the fourteenth century. Ever since the initial publication, the Egerton Genesis, a fragmentary, unfinished cycle of 149 scenes with accompanying texts placed in the upper section of each compartment, has puzzled scholars by its singular approach to narrative painting and its unconventional iconography.

After an exhaustive survey of references in earlier literature (2-5) and a short section on Bible picture books (5-9), the authors describe their methodological approach as a multiple and flexible one aiming at a consideration of "the monument itself with respect to its artistic production and the social milieu in which it was produced" (9). The study thus includes a codicological and palaeographic analysis, transcriptions and translations of the texts, and an image by image discussion of the iconography; the concluding chapters deal with the influence of drama on the imagery, and attempt to identify other works by the artist. The authors propose the artist to be a Flemish immigrant in Norwich. Finally, the question of patronage is given some attention.

Chapter Two contains a codicological description of the fragmentary book. It discusses issues of misbinding and inkblot transfers, followed by a thorough, detailed, and convincing outline of the working process, which appears to be marked by numerous efforts to save time on the part of the artist/scribe. The fact that the manuscript remained unfinished offers a particularly interesting insight into the production. Two hands can be distinguished in the accompanying texts: scribe I, thought by the authors to be the main artist, apparently handed the task of writing to a colleague, scribe II, after few folios. Some suggestions as to the procedures may strike readers as perhaps over-speculative, such as the reasons offered for the lack of text on fol. 8, the account of how scribe I might have instructed scribe II towards the completion of the work, or the identification of scribe I as the main artist. The various steps of drawing, penwork shading and coloring are described in detail. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the text sources for the inscriptions: Anglo-Norman translations from the Vulgate, the Historia Scholastica, and the late thirteenth-century Bible Historiale by Guyart Desmoulins.

Chapter Three contains descriptions of all 149 scenes most of them followed by short iconographic commentaries spelling out connections with other works of art and listing occasional iconographic sources, such as the biblical narrative, the Historia Scholastica, legendary material, familiar oral accounts, as well as religious drama. The commentaries treat six main issues: iconographic distinction, patronage, relation to other fourteenth-century manuscripts, the place of the Egerton Genesis within the broader picture of illumination and visual culture, especially that of the first half of the century, place of production, and the artist's origin. Cycles used for comparison include English fourteenth-century picture Bibles and other Genesis cycles, such as the Holkham Bible, the Queen Mary and the Isabella Psalter. Non-English cycles such as the Padua Bible are occasionally considered. Readers might find the approach in this chapter somewhat fatiguing, monotonous, and often repetitive. Arrangement of the material according to subject matter or iconographic sources would have been preferable to the image by image presentation.

Most illuminating are the observations and conclusions offered in Chapter Four on parallels with medieval drama, although -- as the authors anticipate -- one is hampered by the fact that all the evidence from medieval English drama is significantly younger than the Egerton Genesis. But even without specifically supportive contemporary parallels some features of the narrative are strikingly theatrical. Examples are the portrayals of Adam's descendants looking like a procession of prophets; biblical figures who appear to introduce themselves to the audience, a feature known to have been common in medieval drama; shepherd wrestling scenes and other shepherds' games; Abraham in a pilgrim's outfit evoking Peregrinus plays. The hands and faces of the deity and other celestial beings are often gilded or silvered, most probably influenced by the use of gilded and silver masks for celestial creatures in drama. Similarly the angels' feathered costumes are known from theatre. "The visual narratives of the Egerton Genesis" -- the authors conclude -- "are seldom touched by the courtly restraint often to be found in the main biblical scenes of fourteenth-century English manuscript illumination." The reliance on drama reinforces realistic formulae, which take the place of the spatial illusionism of the early Italian Renaissance. Naturalism in the Egerton Genesis is restricted to modeled and shaded figures; there is no interest in space and perspective (153-154). Here the authors refer to Italianisms in the figure style, frequently observed in earlier scholarship on the Egerton Genesis. These Italian quotations are placed in front of landscapes and architectural settings not at all indebted to the spatial concepts of the early Italian Renaissance, but clearly reflecting Northern stylistic conventions.

Chapter Five, on the style opens with a defensive plea for traditional stylistic study. The analysis of style that follows is guided by the same type of questions as the iconographic discussion, such as distinction. The broader framework, the artist's origin, interests, personality, and psychology are also brought into the argument. High degrees of consistency and discrepancy are discerned. The drawing technique is marked by tight and controlled lines, significantly different from the more flexible and looser lines common in earlier English illumination. For the design and geometric organization of the figure's eyes the authors suggest antecedents in the area of Ghent and on the Franco-Flemish border. Other stylistic characteristics are traced to English or Italian art. In general readers may find the Italian references somewhat played down. The authors reject conclusions in earlier scholarship that the artist might have been trained in Italy and worked with early Christian models, claiming that the Italian characteristics of the figure style are combined with Northern ones and that the solidity of the personages can be relate not only to Italian, but also to Flemish stylistic sources. The Italianate and early Christian features -- so the authors -- do not necessarily point to direct Italian or early Christian influences, but can be found in English or Flemish painting as well. However, as they concede, the Egerton Genesis' figure style is more indebted to Italian sources than are any of the English or Flemish parallels. This is true in particular for the foreshortened figures and the back views (170-171). Several stylistic traits, finally, are typical for East Anglia and suggest a provenance there, in particular Norwich, which has recently been identified as a center of manuscript illumination (167).

The discussion on drapery is put in the broader context of other manuscripts attributed to the artist: two miniatures in the Fitzmarin Psalter (Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, cod. lat. 765), the James Memorial Psalter (London, British Library, MS Add. 44949), and the Psalter of Stephen of Derby (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson G. 185). Here too the Italian influence is strongly apparent, the Flemish impact low. The frequently observed sudden hastiness in the execution of the manuscript strikingly contradicts evidently painstaking efforts, such as the penwork shading. The authors consider the possibility of a psychological dimension to the many inconsistencies and suggest the plague of 1348/49 as a traumatic cause. The style, so they claim, expresses -- probably unconsciously -- a general atmosphere of derangement. On the basis of this stylistic heterogeneity and the frequent Flemish features the authors undertake to identify the artist of the Egerton Genesis as Michiel van der Borch, who was probably active in Ghent. They suggest that he immigrated to England in the late 1330s or early 1340s and that he worked there for about ten to fifteen years (227). Other Flemish artists are known to have immigrated to England during that period, an era of flourishing relationships between the two countries. Some of van der Borch's work, although partly of disputable attribution, is here linked to the English manuscripts ascribed to the artist of the Egerton Genesis. These links are based on observations of style, penwork, idiosyncracies of execution, and many iconographic repetitions. The authors go so far as to propose that a great deal of East Anglian manuscript painting was executed by Flemish immigrants and that this entire chapter in the history of English manuscript illumination should be re-evaluated. In the particular case of Michiel van der Borch the authors hypothesize that he might have left Ghent due to economic difficulties caused by the decline of the Flemish wool industry and the subsequent English domination in this particular economic field. At all events, the artist had a sharp eye for social situations. He seems to have worked for a secular, not very wealthy middle class patron. This can be inferred from the lack of gold leaf and the only occasional use of cheaper gold wash. The often comic facial expressions, the recurrent sexual and scatological imagery -- entirely uncommon in biblical scenes and normally restricted to the margins -- support this identification of a secular middle class patron, who "relished drama, made no pretence of scholarship or piety, and had an earthy sense of humour and keen eye for human and societal defects" (9).

The methodologies used to conduct this study are entirely traditional, although at the same time the authors clearly distance themselves from the recensional approach which has dominated many iconographic discussions of the cycle. Some readers will find the identification of the artist as Michiel van der Borch too enterprising, particularly in the lack of the archival work (203) that would certainly have been necessary in view of the boldness of the claim. Most of the discussion seems rather hypothetical. Moreover, this part of the book -- unlike the others -- is accompanied by rather poor, small-scale reproductions of the comparative material, all in black and white, in which stylistic details are difficult to discern. The comparisons lack the degree of similarity that could be expected. The conclusions about Italianate features found only in van der Borch's assumed English work, are hard to follow. The claim that he absorbed Italian features not directly, but through English and Flemish intermediaries seems far-fetched, especially since the most dominant iconographic source from abroad -- the Padua Bible -- is an Italian work.

The definition of the patron's background is restricted to a few comments on his personality, his secular background, and his apparently limited financial means. His possible Flemish background is, again, highly hypothetical. Readers might feel that a fuller treatment of this particular social stratum in the region where the manuscript was produced would be desirable. More information concerning what is known about book culture, education, the economy, and cultural identity in the particular social group in which the authors locate the patron, would have broadened the picture significantly. The patron is assumed to have had a special affinity for the theater, but the question whether and to what extent the social group to which he belonged typically constituted the audience of late medieval drama remains unaddressed. Numerous matters, especially those that would have called for a more interdisciplinary approach, thus remain open. Finally, some of the personal qualities attributed to the patron might be the artist's. Although today we know a great deal about the techniques of manuscript production, we are still much in the dark about the process of decision-making concerning subject matter and imagery. The patron certainly had a say, but he did not compose the images himself, and the artist was decidedly independent as regards numerous aspects of the subject matter. The frequent references to sexual intercourse, for example, might well be initiated by the artist and not objected to by the patron. It seems that the personality of the patron can not be as clearly delineated as the authors would wish.

All in all, and despite these reservations, this is a fine book and an important contribution to the study of manuscript painting, its strongest features being the links to medieval drama, well written and thoroughly investigated, and the reconstruction of the working process based on a thorough understanding of the codicological evidence. The book is well designed and most of the text is accompanied by fairly well produced illustrations. The Egerton cycle is almost fully reproduced in color, in itself a very welcome contribution.

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Author Biography

Katrin Kogman-Appel

Ben Gurion University of the Negev