18.11.09, Hamburger et al., Liturgical Life and Latin Learning

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Diane J. Reilly

The Medieval Review 18.11.09

Hamburger, Jeffrey, Eva Schlotheuber, Susan Marti, Margot Fassler, eds. Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest, 1300-1425. Inscription and Illumination in the Choir Books of a North German Dominican Convent. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag,, 2016. pp. xiv, 781 (v1); pp. x, 636 (v2). ISBN: 978-3-402-13072-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Diane Reilly
Indiana University, Bloomington

Liturgical Life and Latin Learning at Paradies bei Soest is a remarkable work. Like its predecessor, Leaves from Paradies: The Cult of John the Evangelist at the Dominican Convent of Paradies bei Soest, ed. Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), which sprang from a 2006 conference, the present work features the charming and complex illuminated liturgical manuscripts from Paradies, often reproduced as large, colorful plates, transcriptions of the micrographic inscriptions that embellish and elaborate the imagery and the musical sequences composed by the nuns, as well as essays that explain them. In place of the 2008 publication's discrete studies, which began their lives as individual conference papers, the chapters of Liturgical Life and Latin Learning were conceptualized from the beginning as components of a single, massive project coauthored by scholars from diverse disciplines who by working together could better reveal the depth of learning and sophisticated planning of the convent's nuns.

The convent of Paradies bei Soest, a Dominican house following the Augustinian Rule, was founded in the thirteenth century as the Dominican order expanded into northern Westphalia. Differentiated from male houses by their ability to receive property and thus cultivate long-term donor relationships, the female houses followed a lifestyle of strict enclosure and ceaseless prayer that sharply contrasted the outward-facing pastoral mission of the order's male houses. The manuscripts made by the nuns of Paradies bei Soest, both for their own use and for nearby Dominican friars, served corporate worship and encapsulated the nuns' thinking about the liturgy that framed their lives. They also, as the authors reveal, evidence a marked contrast with how the education and artworks of later medieval nuns are usually characterized, as vernacular in language and strongly mystical and emotional in tone. This theme, that Paradies exhibits "a culture of Latin literacy and exegetical sophistication," is first stated in the introduction and binds together the book's chapters, whether they examine music or miniatures (5). The Dominican nuns of Paradies thus had much in common with earlier communities such as the Augustinian nuns led by the twelfth-century abbess Herrad of Hohenberg, or the twelfth-century Benedictine community of Admont, both of which produced artworks that testify to the Latinity of the nuns and their investment in corporate liturgical practice and/or theological knowledge. As the authors of Liturgical Life and Latin Learning warn, our picture of the intellectual life of the Paradies nuns (like that of any long-closed house) is limited to what we can extrapolate from the fragments of their library that survive and the clues embedded in the miniatures themselves. Yet so many liturgical books survive from the Paradies orbit, and they are so rich in original artistic and musical compositions, with at least one sequence written in a notably complicated form of Latin, that in this case we can easily conclude that at Paradies the nuns achieved the pinnacle of a traditional monastic education. At the same time, their elaborate chains of reference imitate activities then taking place in the schools.

While this central thesis drove the original quest to study the manuscripts as a group, it did not limit the remit the authors assigned themselves, which was to study the monastery as a whole. Chapters on its foundation documents, its claustral buildings, and educational norms in the region's nunneries, including a digression on rituals of reception into the order, preface an introduction to the manuscripts. A precious fourteenth-century library catalogue surviving from the nearby Dominican nunnery of St. Mary's Lemgo shows that the nuns of Paradies were not the only Dominican sisters in the region to embrace learning. Patterns of book ownership up to the sixteenth century are explored. The authors document the transfer of the convent's library to state ownership and the destruction of a large part of the original collection at the direction of a Dusseldorf archivist. Appendices include reproductions, editions, and translations of the Lemgo library catalogue and the foundation legend.

This contextualization allows us to picture the Paradies nuns using their manuscripts in their original functional environment: a wooden gallery choir perched in the west end of their hall church, where an organ existed from at least the later fourteenth century. The lay community observed the Mass and Office in the nave below, while the sanctuary was the domain of clerics. The nuns' choir was also the focus of their educational efforts: in order to undergird their liturgical practice the nuns immersed themselves, both in and outside the choir, in the very works that provided the liturgy, knitting together all the forms of work their life required, as shown by the manuscripts themselves, evidence from other German Dominican nunneries, and the writings of contemporaries such as Humbert of Romans, the thirteenth-century Master General.

The nearly hundred pages of preliminary historical and contextual information set the stage for the introduction to the manuscripts. The authors briefly survey the contents and appearance of the first surviving gradual, Düsseldorf Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek D 10a, but because this manuscript was likely made in Northern France, Flanders, or Hainaut ca. 1260-70 for an unidentified Dominican community and is not tailored to the needs of the nuns of Paradies, it is quickly set aside. (Happily it has nonetheless been digitized as a part of this grand project, http://digital.ub.uni-duesseldorf.de/ms/content/titleinfo/3319004.) Instead, those books made for and by the Paradies nuns are the focus. The surviving two volumes (Düsseldorf ULB D 7 and 9) of what once may have been a four-volume choir antiphonary set from before 1326 are introduced, with the primary aim of mapping their iconographic program and supporting the hypothesis that an extensive set of fragments, here called the Dusseldorf-Hamm-Neuss antiphonary, belonged to the now lost antiphonary set. If true, the Paradies nuns once gazed upon a remarkably lavish suite of four antiphonaries on the lecterns at the center of their wooden choir perch. Gaps in our knowledge of Westphalian manuscript illumination make it difficult to identify where the miniatures were painted, but the authors argue they are the work of secular artists. The intriguing suggestion (94) that the manuscripts may have been copied within the convent is not taken up in the more detailed discussion, where the scribes and music notator are not localized.

Thus, nothing foreshadows the sudden appearance of the convent's gifted nun, Elisabeth von Lünen, who single-handedly copied and notated, and probably also decorated, a lavish gradual for a recently-founded community of Dominican friars in Dortmund (Dortmund, Propsteikirche B 6). Here we find for the first time the tiny inscribed words and phrases glossing the liturgy they accompany that would characterize subsequent Paradies work. The micrographic inscriptions imbedded in blue and red pen flourishes reveal deep knowledge of chants and theological works read or heard elsewhere in the course of liturgical life. Whether the Dortmund friars requested this type of decoration or Elisabeth inserted it of her own volition is unknown. From this auspicious beginning, the scriptorium expanded its repertoire of textual embellishments: letters embedded in pen flourishes were joined by tituli in banderoles and by tiny figures, some painted, some pen-drawn, betraying an established scribal culture that lasted six or seven decades--similarities between the manuscripts suggest that later artists occasionally turned to the earlier Paradies works as models. The authors sometimes identify the hands of these artists, as in the massive Gradual, Düsseldorf ULB D 11, with tiny figures of nuns drawn into the flourishes (1.166, 188), making them into self portraits, although in other cases they suggest these are instead tributes (168, 743). None of the manuscripts from the midpoint of the scriptorium's work contains a colophon and no hands have been identified as working in both Elisabeth von Lünen's gradual and any other manuscript from Paradies. As in the Dortmund gradual's micrographic inscriptions, however, the content of the pervasive, tiny banderoles snaking through the miniatures and marginal decorations relies on such synthetic knowledge of the Office, scripture and exegetical works it is almost inconceivable they could have been composed by anyone other than a Dominican nun or friar. The banderoles and their texts are woven into the imagery in such a way that the painting and inscribing must have been collaborative, making it likely that most of the illumination was also done in house. Several decades later the nuns were still employing the same repertoire of tiny inscriptions and pen flourish decoration in another gradual, D 12, in which we once again have a colophon identifying the scribe as a nun, Elisabeth Rathus, who was helped in an indeterminate way by two of her sisters, Hadewig of Ludenscheide and Elisabeth Schilling--as with B 6, none of the hands in D 12 can be identified in earlier Paradies manuscripts. This time, like in the earlier antiphonary set (D 7 and D 9) the nuns turned to a secular illuminator to provide some miniatures, but then apparently imitated his work in others, the collaboration between artist and inscriber again indicating that except for four miniatures the rest of the work was done at Paradies. The textual sources for the roughly 770 inscriptions that enliven the manuscripts' miniatures and borders are listed in an appendix (2.83-92), grouped by textual source rather than the manuscript in which they are found. This highlights the diversity of the works from which the nuns sought inspiration. A separate table identifies text sources for each inscription in D 12, while sources for inscriptions from D 11 are identified in a section of volume 1.

The graduals B 6, D 11, and D 12 receive the lion's share of attention here because of the originality of both their decoration and their sequences. In composing their own sequences the nuns of Paradies followed a tradition already established by other Dominican nuns in the region, yet as the comparative table in Appendix D makes clear, they may have composed as many as ten new sequences of their own, more than survive from other contexts. All but one are found in D 11, the later-fourteenth-century gradual bristling with tiny, pen-drawn nuns, inscriptions, and illuminations, and thus this manuscript is examined at length. As the authors explain, sequences were generally grouped together within graduals because of their novelty: most were composed well after the bulk of Mass chants had been standardized. Nonetheless, the decorative program in the sequentiary appended to D 11 is fully integrated into that of the rest of the manuscript, and cues the nuns' preoccupation with themes that resonated throughout chants and lections for the Masses and Offices of a feast's vigil and octave as well as the feast itself. Using contrafacta, parallel rhyme schemes, and thematic allusions the composer linked sequences sung on different feasts throughout the year, triggering recall among those who sang. The authors compare these sequences strophe by strophe, including English translations, to make these links overt. Tiny initials throughout are populated with figures, painted or pen-drawn, banderoles and inscriptions, together forming a visual and textual chorus of commentary on both preexisting and newly composed sequences and the Mass chants. The authors also suggest that the process of designing the iconography surrounding the feast's Mass chants may in some cases have influenced the composition of the sequence (248). The sequences, like the pen-drawn and painted nuns who people the decoration, make the nuns into inheritors of the apostolic tradition via the Virgin Mary, and betray their special devotion to John the Evangelist. Fragments of libelli dedicated to John the Evangelist also testify to the energy surrounding liturgical invention at fourteenth-century Paradies. Altogether their efforts reflected a particularly Dominican interpretation of their liturgical life.

481 pages of the first volume (beyond the 70 devoted to its sequentiary) are dedicated to a detailed study of the nexus of text, image, and inscription in the gradual D 11. The authors introduce each feast and its chants, then proceed to unpick the web of tiny images and inscriptions that embroider them, pinning down sources, theological implications, and the meanings for the nuns, aided by an astounding number of detail photographs. Although the sequentiary served as a supplement to the gradual, meaning the sequences for each feast were found later in the manuscript, their texts and imagery are analyzed in concert with those of the other Mass chants with which they would have been heard and seen, unifying each liturgical celebration's music, chant, and artwork. For instance, D 11's Mass chants for the Assumption of the Virgin commence with a stunning, gilded miniature of the Dormition, crowned with Mary's enthronement in heaven with her son. Apostles, including Dionysius the Areopagite, cluster by her bed while saints, kings, and angels surround them, all brandishing banderoles that refer to the chants sung in the Mass and Office of that week, conjoining the holy assembly with the nuns' worship (530-45), while another inscription paraphrases De laudibus sanctae virginis, revealing the nuns' studies. John the Evangelist takes pride of place, as frequently occurs throughout the gradual. Above the melisma for the Alleluia is a miniature funeral procession of the Virgin, led by John. The sequence Ave preclara maris is inflected with gold stars, glossed by a tiny figure of John holding a quote from Apocalypse. Initials for the following strophes illustrate the words, commentate, or show diminutive nuns at prayer.

How did the nuns consume these embellishments? From their seats in the choir the nuns could discern the notes in the gradual open before them on the lectern, but not the banderoles, pen flourishes, or tiny figures. While the authors suggest that "the celebrant is free to read the inscriptions in any order she wishes" (736) it is hard to imagine any nun could read them during the celebration of the Mass, particularly because they face many different directions, as the authors acknowledge. They propose that the nuns may have been able to study and consult the books "on a regular basis" (231). Certainly the nuns who collaborated to copy and decorate the books would have been immersed in their commentary. Perhaps the nuns considered the manuscripts' ultimate audience to be God and the saints, and their devotional act was the process of copying and decorating them.

The authors collaborated to a remarkable degree to pool their individual specialties in studying the manuscripts as a group, and to make the sections dedicated to each specialty less opaque to outsiders. In particular, origins and meanings of church feasts and their place in the church calendar are defined; the liturgical roles of chant components in gradual D 11 are spelled out; musicological terms and norms, such as the function and compositional principles of the sequence, are explained, making these chapters understandable to a wider audience (although the discussion of notation, unsurprisingly, will be impenetrable to most non-musicologists).

The press, Aschendorff, and other funding organizations should be lauded for their willingness to support such a mammoth and lavishly illustrated set of volumes, for which the reader should be all the more grateful because the size and resolution of the full-page plates and details are essential to deciphering the micrographic inscriptions. The number of typos, repeated words, and grammatical errors is relatively small for a work of this length in which much of the material was translated from German. The text in the first volume, oddly, usually doesn't refer the reader to the second volume's beautiful, full-page plates of the imagery under discussion (for instance at 1.152 the Dortmund gradual's fol. 135r is only described, while a lovely illustration can be found in 2.429). The rationale behind how the parts of the book are organized isn't obvious, and frequently discussion in one place relies on arguments made much later in another section (the discussion of the meaning of D 11 p. 2's initial for the responsory Regnum mundi, mentioned on pp. 59 and 62 but only explained 300-302, is a case in point). Even the most competent analytical reasoning specialist, however, would be stymied by the challenge of ordering such a complex study, with its 6 interdependent parts, 28 chapters, and 56 subparts. The scope of the study and the amount of information assembled here will likely make Paradies and its manuscripts the ruler by which all similar foundations with a surviving artistic, intellectual, and musical patrimony will be measured.

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