03.02.32, Muir, ed., Reading Texts and Images

Main Article Content

Madeline Caviness

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.032


Muir, Bernard J., ed.. Reading Texts and Images: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Art and Patronage. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. xxvii, 337. ISBN: 0-85989-713-3.

Reviewed by:
Madeline Caviness
Tufts University

As befits a scholar of Margaret Manion's standing, an international group of fourteen cultural historians have crafted papers in her honor on subjects that extend from the Book of Kells to eighteenth-century medievalism, but with a concentration on manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In his introduction the editor gives a useful synopsis of each paper that I will not repeat here (xvii-xxv). It is notable that he has also compiled a very usable index, sometimes lacking in Festschriften.

The contributions, presented in the chronological order of the cultural moments examined in them, prioritize subject-matter and context, text-image relationships, scribal practices, and medieval reception, and each is a model for this kind of historical work. A few are concerned within these parameters with gender (Backhouse and Eichberger) and class (Alexander), though the index reveals Classicism not class, genealogy not gender, Woman in the Sun but not women. Rodney Thompson works on the boundaries of the art historical canon with a study of small pen-work initials in a group of west country English manuscripts of the twelfth century (19-34). This pursuit seems less useful in a positivistic sense (evidence for provenance, as he hopes) as delightful in the richness and variety of motifs presented. I am more struck by the internationalism of these designs than by their local character -- col. Pl. 3 for instance would have been no surprise to me in the Reims manuscripts that I sifted to find communality in the ornament of manuscripts, metalwork, sculpture and stained glass.

Others provide new insights into works that are considered mainstream, or even famous. Bernard Muir refreshingly brushes aside suggestions that two clusters of small, entwined figures on the Quoniam page at the opening of St. Luke's gospel in the Book of Kells represent a homosexual entanglement and a parody on the Eucharist. He argues instead that they should relate to the text of the gospels, specifically to the genealogy of Christ. One might show Abraham's servant vowing to find a wife for Isaac, his hand placed on the patriarch's thigh for the oath as indicated in the text. The other would allude to Abraham's progeny with Melchisadech pouring wine, and Jacob holding the foot of his twin, Esau, as he had been born. As a complaining feminist, I miss the mother and midwife here (shown in the Bible Moralisee illustration of the birth, fig. 1c), but I have to concede that textual connection is what is needed for the figures in Kells. Joan E. Barclay Lloyd, "The River of Life in the Medieval Mosaics of S Maria Maggiore in Rome," re-examines the thirteenth-century apse mosaic of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and plausibly argues that its Marian program was produced under Franciscan influence. Lucy Freeman Sandler, "The Illustration of the Psalms in Fourteenth-Century English Manuscripts: Three Psalters of the Bohun Family," revisits three of the many manuscripts made for these patrons. She presents an extremely lucid account of the ways in which hundreds of images were produced for these psalters, each of which is distinctive, and the ways in which they may have been read by family members over three generations. She fulfils her promise (126) "to determine how a particular text elicits a particular image [and] in turn...to understand how an image affects the reading of a text." She also notes themes that are relevant to the contexts of Lollardry and to the politics of Edward III's court.

A French Book of Hours of about 1475-80 that had been published by Margaret Manion is the subject of two papers, proving once more that even the most thorough catalogues and monographs provoke more investigation. Thomas Kren, "Seven Illuminated Books of Hours Written by the Parisian Scribe Jean Dubreuil, c.1475-1485," discusses the degree of standardization in a group of books that include the Wharncliffe Hours. It is argued they share the same scribe, though some were illuminated by Paris painters and others are in the style of Tours -- and all have a calendar for Le Mans. Kren cautiously surmises that Jean was the entrepreneur who brought these elements of production together. This conclusion is juxtaposed with a study of the Wharncliffe Hours that goes in a different direction.

Jonathan Alexander, "Chastity, Love and Marriage in the Margins of the Wharncliffe Hours," makes very plausible suggestions concerning the subjects in the margins of the full-page illuminations in this book. He argues for a cycle of pictures that address virginity, courtship, rape, loyalty, and the temptations of the flesh, themes that provide moral lessons for marriage. I suggest a couple of additional points: the mermaid in paradise surely resonates with Satan (often a serpent-headed woman) who will lead Adam and Eve to lust (207, n. 24). And the whale-hunting under the Dormition of the Virgin at the opening of the funeral service, plausibly construed as alluding to resurrection (by association with Jonah), surely has the connotation of the death of death (207-208). From representations of well-dressed men on the page at the opening of the office for the dead and, I would add, the number of male protagonists in the small marginal scenes, it seems probable that the book was made for a man whose identity however remains unknown. The most interesting of the main-frame images, with Abigail meeting David and acknowledging her husband's guilt in refusing to help David against Saul, Alexander glosses as a meeting of Justice and Mercy (the irate David), with Mercy and Truth (Abigail mediating; 210, figs. 56, 68). In secular terms, the episode seems to me to be a lesson in a married woman's loyalty to a ruler more than to a husband, a disturbing note for matrimony, at least from a husband's point of view. Alexander posits the patron's input here, since the subject departs from the norm for the penitential psalms, and I am tempted to suggest that this works if the patron was a woman commissioning a prayer book for her new husband, or perhaps for her son's wedding. In the little marginal scenes elucidated by Alexander this male owner could learn the dos and don'ts of courtship and sex, and be warned that a good wife will not support him in treachery. The theoretical framework for Alexander's excellent reading is surprisingly uncertain (209-211). His dilemma between the artist's and patron's intention and the readings that can be teased from the choice and arrangement of subjects seems rather unnecessary: ideological work is produced and read somewhat unconsciously, in that the messages are so familiar they are naturalized by maker and reader, albeit with some individual variation in immediate reader reception (as by gender and class). When the modern art historian attempts to recover the hidden messages in images, the original processes of encoding and decoding are not always distinguishable from one another.

Late medieval and Renaissance devotional and liturgical use of the arts are the domain of John Stinson, Nigel Morgan, Janet Backhouse, and Louise Marshall. Stinson, "The Rimini Antiphonal: Palimpsest Music and Renaissance Liturgical Practice," establishes the Franciscan patronage of a fourteenth-century Italian book that is now in Australia, and investigates the way in which the music was re-written in an early seventeenth-century notational system, thus preserving the earlier melodies. Morgan, "Patrons and Devotional Images in English Art of the International Gothic c.1350-1450," chooses not to consider whether every kneeling figure had paid for and commissioned the work in which he/she appears (a question I raised in 1996 in June Hall McCash's collection on The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women). However the number of examples known to Morgan is always impressive, and he deftly sorts them by types of prayer, whether for their living state, or the salvation of their souls. There is a great deal of useful information in this overview. Backhouse, "A Further Illuminated Devotional Book for the Use of Lady Margaret Beaufort," reviews this queen mother's ownership of books up to her death in 1509, and presents a detailed history of a book with the Office of the Name of Jesus that was made in Italy for her about 1494, when a papal bull named her as one of the founders of that feast. She is also represented in a book of hours from France, and Backhouse raises the question whether these overseas commissions were placed by her son, as gifts to her, rather than by her.

Marshall's contextual account of the martyrdom of a male saint that was frequently explored in the naturalistic representational codes of the Italian Renaissance also emphasizes devotional use: "Reading the Body of a Plague Saint: Narrative Altarpieces and Devotional Images of St Sebastian in Renaissance Art." She painstakingly builds a case for associating the saint with protection from the plague, and with the suffering of Christ, arguing that these youthful male bodies penetrated by arrows were affective icons, believed to be capable of saving people from disease. The rather too replete footnotes that, for instance, suddenly produce a historiography of the altarpiece from 1893 on, warn of an over-determined argument. The sheer scholarly density of the piece tends to obfuscate the process of "reading the body." Queering the reading would by no means have diminished the case for intense spiritual experience. Quite the contrary, any new reading must respond in some way to the use of this image in Kaja Silverman's Male Subjectivity at the Margins. The homoeroticism of Luca Signorelli's Martyrdom of St Sebastian of 1498 certainly compares in intensity with the heterosexual charge in Hans Baldung's Death and a Maiden (figs. 83 & 100).

Gender and sexuality are a large part of the discussion when it comes to sensual women threatened by death. Dagmar Eichberger's broad essay, "Close Encounters with Death: Changing Representations of Women in Renaissance Art and Literature," demonstrates that the emphasis placed on class difference in the traditional late medieval Dance of Death, gave way, in northern Europe in the early sixteenth century, to texts and images that blame women for the fall and consequent mortality of men. The path is a familiar one, and although the theological pronouncements against women no doubt contributed to this gynophobia, its root cause ultimately escapes the author.

Not long after the Renaissance came medievalism. A short digression in Backhouse's paper revealed that the great manuscript collector Sir Robert Cotton had replaced Margaret Beaufort's arms with those of his ancestors (225). Christopher De Hamel's and Gerard Vaughan's papers are also concerned with provenance and reception history. De Hamel's delightfully titled "Pink Elephants in Brussels," unravels the ownership history of twin two-volume Dutch bibles, and concludes that neither one was seen by Gutenberg in Brussels, nor copied for his printed recension, as had been claimed. Vaughan, "An Eighteenth-Century Classicist's Medievalism: The Case of Charles Townley," examines a less well known aspect of this collector of ancient art, his attachment to his medieval name, the family's medieval country house and its contents, and to Catholicism (the Townley Mystery Plays are already well-known to medievalists). Most famous of his purchases are the St. Denis chalice acquired in 1804, now in the National Gallery of Art in the US, and the manuscript with the Life of St. Edmund that is now in the Morgan Library.

Article Details

Author Biography

Madeline Caviness

Tufts University