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22.03.14 Drechsler, Illuminated Manuscript Production in Medieval Iceland

22.03.14 Drechsler, Illuminated Manuscript Production in Medieval Iceland

This richly illustrated monograph is dedicated to a group of sixteen manuscripts written at or near the Augustinian abbey of Helgafell in Iceland during the second half of the fourteenth century. The main focus is on illumination and visual aspects, with the aim of showing stylistic and iconographical similarities not only among these manuscripts, but also among the Helgafell group and contemporary manuscripts from other institutions and places in Iceland, and to a lesser extent from production centres in Norway, England, and France. The book thus aims to examine the “nature and organisation of the Helgafell scriptorium” (6). It argues that this scriptorium was not a closed workshop where the same scribes and illuminators worked under stable conditions over time, but rather more flexibly organised, with scribes and illuminators working together in various constellations. While two anonymous scribes, H Hel 1 and H Hel 2, were mainly responsible for the output, they worked together with no fewer than sixteen other scribes and seven illuminators to produce the Helgafell manuscripts; however, the present study argues that H Hel 2 did not work at Helgafell itself, but rather at a nearby estate (228-30).

The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction presents an overview of the material and gives a short summary of the main contributions of the study, as well as an outline of the chapters to follow. Chapter 1 lays out the theoretical and methodological foundations of the study. A key concept is the distinction between manuscripts internal to Helgafell (that is, those written by one of the two main scribes) and those external (those that are linked to Helgafell through textual, iconographic, or stylistic similarities). Another important concept is that of interpicturality, the reuse of images and forms in “a new context which may alter their meaning” (39). Such reuse might indicate exchanges between artists and workshops. Chapter 2 presents the historical background of Helgafell and the institutional and individual connections that may have impacted Helgafell as a centre of book production. In particular, the Augustinian house of Þykkvibær (and to a lesser extent that of Viðey) plays a role here, as members of this abbey composed and translated texts that are found in Helgafell manuscripts. Helgafell’s acquisition of land in the fourteenth century, a process driven by three successive abbots, and the resulting increase of the abbey’s wealth are also discussed, as this period coincides with the production of the Helgafell group and related manuscripts (49).

Chapter 3 is devoted to the scriptorium of Helgafell and is in every sense the central part of the study, being the longest chapter by far. Each of the sixteen manuscripts of the Helgafell group is presented, analysed, and where applicable linked to contemporary manuscripts from other parts of Iceland through style and/or iconography, showing the extent of dialogue and exchange that took place between Icelandic artistic milieus. Chapter 4 expands the frame of reference by comparing the illumination and initials of the Helgafell manuscripts to possible models/sources of inspiration in Western Norway, England, and Northern France. Chapter 5 brings the focus back to Iceland by analysing the relationships and working patterns of the scribes and artists, based on the discussion of the previous chapters. Finally, the concluding chapter synthesises the main findings of the study, stressing the extensive networks of the Helgafell workshop: while few links seem to have existed with the Benedictine monastery of Þingeyrar, Helgafell formed connections with several workshops in the nearby Breiðafjörður region, allowing them to produce complex manuscripts involving multiple scribes and artists.

There is much to commend in this monograph: it is meticulous and well-researched, drawing upon a large and varied body of secondary literature as well as first-hand examination of the source material. The author handles an impressive amount of complex and detailed information, visually represented in graphs outlining the artistic and scribal networks of the Helgafell group and related manuscripts. The linking not only of individuals (scribes and artists) but of manuscripts based on textual, iconographic, or stylistic traits means that these networks are often quite intricate, but readers interested in individual manuscripts will benefit from the separate discussion of each codex/fragment in Chapter 3, as well as from the index provided at the back of the book. At the same time, the comparison between different manuscripts makes for some of the study’s most interesting reading, especially in the analysis of historiated initials and their models. It is convincingly argued that some of the artists connected to Helgafell, like the anonymous “Helgafell Master,” the illuminator of Skarðsbók, and Magnus Þórhallsson, known as the illuminator and second scribe of Flateyjarbók, were innovative in their use of models and creation of images (79, 115). The picture that emerges of illumination milieus in late fourteenth-century Iceland is one of creativity and flexibility, as well as familiarity with established models.

The study seems to be mainly aimed at readers already somewhat familiar with the corpus, or at least with (some of) the manuscripts concerned. As a result, the question of whether the Helgafell group was indeed produced at Helgafell--in other words, the argument for linking the manuscripts to this specific abbey--is not explicitly raised until Chapter 5, presumably because this link is widely accepted in the scholarship. The question of origin is hinted at earlier: the introduction states that the group of manuscripts “has been assumed to derive from an ecclesiastical workshop once situated on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in western Iceland, where an Augustinian house of canons regular was established following the congregation’s relocation in 1184 or 1185” (25). In the discussion of the fourth manuscript presented (Reykjavik, AM 239 fol.), it is mentioned that the manuscript in question is the only one with a link to Helgafell, as it contains a note revealing it was owned by the abbey (116-17). Finally, Chapter 5 raises the question of whether there actually existed an active scriptorium at Helgafell. Despite the lack of evidence apart from the group of manuscripts itself, most of which share several codicological features, it is argued that the date of production of the group corresponds to a period of economic growth for the abbey, making it likely the books were produced at Helgafell (223). The assumption makes sense, but the question of origin is fundamental enough that it would have made more sense to address it earlier, especially as the author argues that one of the main scribes, H Hel 2, was not actually based at Helgafell at all (228-30). There are other instances where the reasoning could have been made clearer, like in the discussion of Codex Hardenbergianus (184 ff.), where it is mentioned that Magnus Rindal dated the oldest part of this manuscript to c. 1300-50 whilst Stefán Karlsson dated it to c. 1350-60 (186). The subsequent discussion is based on the later dating, and so this reader would have liked at least a brief argument in favour of that timeline, given that the illumination appears to correspond better to Rindal’s dating (187–88).

The book holdings of Helgafell seem to have been robust from an early date (48), and the study could have benefited from more discussion of the manuscripts in the light of surviving inventories. While Chapter 2 addresses the historical background of the site and the abbey, it deals fairly quickly with the question of Helgafell’s affiliation to Saint-Victor in Paris (again, a familiarity with the Augustinian abbey of Saint-Victor and its importance to twelfth-century Northerners appears to be assumed) and what impact, if any, this affiliation might have on the books owned and produced by the abbey. A notable exception is the intriguing suggestion that Snorri Andrésson, a wealthy man known to have bound at least one manuscript in his possession, functioned as a librarian at Helgafell, inspired by Victorine customs (49). At any rate, a French connection established already from the late twelfth century onwards could help to explain the traces of French influence in later manuscripts, but this influence appears to be seen solely in light of exports from Limoges (183–84, 198) although the examples given mainly stem from Northern French works (173, 181–82, 194 and others).

As stated above, the amount of information handled and systematised is impressive, and the organisation of the book makes it easy to consult specific information, thanks to no fewer than five indexes (general index; manuscripts and archival sources; personal names and titles; place names; and scriptoria, manuscript groups, scribes, and illuminators). There are some minor inaccuracies/inconsistencies or points of confusion, such as the occasional use of “monastic” in contexts where one would expect “liturgical” or “ecclesiastical” (75), or the definition of œufs-de-grenouille decoration (54). The mix-up of the Decretum and the Liber Sextus (196) and the misplacement of the Norwegian bailiwick of Nordfjord (197) also belong to this category. These points do not detract from the overall impression of reliability, or the author’s deep knowledge of the material, and the book should be considered an important contribution to our knowledge of an important group of manuscripts.