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24.04.08 Sandler, Penned & Painted

24.04.08 Sandler, Penned & Painted


The increasing prevalence of paintings within paintings in the early modern period--the so-called metapictorial turn--has elicited significant scholarly interest since the publication of Victor Stoichita’s L’instauration du tableau in 1993, translated into English as The Self-Aware Image four years later. To some, the ability of a crafted object to re-present itself recursively is considered a hallmark of art, as opposed to mere artisanal object or cult image. While scholars such as Hans Belting, Alexander Nagel, and Péter Bokody have pushed the date of these transformations backwards in time to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the overwhelming focus remains on large-scale painting. But there is another pictorial medium which, almost from its origins, has sought to show itself within itself: manuscript illumination.

Lucy Freeman Sandler’s compact but beautifully produced hardcover volume investigates the depiction of books upon the varicolored pages of codices themselves, a phenomenon so ubiquitous that it has, until now, evaded much sustained discussion. More specifically, Sandler’s volume consists of sixty illustrations drawn from the splendid holdings of the British Library. It is an introductory guide intended for the general audience, and as such has no footnotes, offering instead a list of general English-language bibliography related to manuscript illumination as an appendix. However, the thoughtful commentary facing each illustration provides food for thought and reflects a career spent in close examination of codices and their decorative programs. The chronological and geographical richness of the BL’s holdings is cast open, even if a plurality of examples is drawn from late medieval English production, the author’s special area of expertise. The bookishness of this book about books is all the more relevant now, as the British Library continues to reel from a cyber-attack perpetrated in October 2023 that has rendered large parts of its electronic catalogue and its digitized facsimiles of manuscripts unavailable.

Sandler’s introduction traces, in layperson’s terms, the rise of the codex as a physical form, and reminds us (by using a mixture of well-chosen instances from the BL and beyond) that illuminations show books in the process of production from a remarkably early date, as evidenced, for example, by hieratic author-scribe portraits such as the Saint Matthew from the early-seventh-century Lindisfarne Gospels or the more veristic workshop setting shown in the early-sixth-century Vienna Dioscurides, in which the Greek pharmacologist writes in a bound book while an illuminator copies a plant specimen from life onto a folio pinned to an easel. Not ignoring the antecedent technology of the roll, the author also highlights the continued depiction of scrolls either as banderoles bearing speech-like utterances, or as signifiers of typology, when, for example, they are held by Old Testament prophets and contrasted with codex-bearing Evangelists of the Christian New Testament, as in the Carolingian Moutier-Grandval Bible of about 835. Sandler also brings our attention to the basic distinction between closed books--more numerous--and open ones--somewhat rarer. Within the latter category, considerations of scale often made it impossible or unnecessary for the illuminator to include readable text or illustration. When text does appear, it may act as a sort of titulus, or it might consist of the incipit of the actual book in which the illumination is found. When the book is shown being written in by its author, this mise-en-abyme scenario is taken even further, and we, the reader, are made acutely aware of the artisanal process that yielded the book we hold in our hands (or view from afar). Realism, though, is selective: scribes are nearly always shown grasping both the pen knife and quill, yet the reality of scribal practice, which saw folios written upon discontinuously prior to binding, is almost always elided.

The core of Penned & Painted presents examples arranged thematically, with each representation commented upon and included under one of two general rubrics, “Books as Symbols,” and “Books in Use.” The first begins with depictions of the book as a manifestation of the Word of God, held by the deity himself or by one of his evangelist amanuenses. Following from this, a section devoted to the Law of the Lord focuses on instances of sacred scripture being debated or interpreted, such as in a scene of Christ among the Doctors or, in an astonishing antisemitic miniature from the Latin-Catalan Breviari d’amor, in a stark illustration of a devil covering the eyes of a Jew who tries to read. Several examples explore the theme of the Virgin Mary reading at the moment of the Angelic Salutation, an apocryphal trope often associated with Renaissance painting but here shown to originate at a much earlier date in the Benedictional of Saint Æthelwold, produced in Winchester in the 970s. Closely connected to the notion of the Virgin as a wise woman, a theme previously explored in articles by Laura Saetveit Miles, Melissa Katz, and David Linton, is the idea of books as signifiers of virtue and--in some cases--as repositories of misdeeds.

The second section explores images of books in use, where the volumes convey meanings related more to their social activation then their innate symbolism. Here we naturally find depictions of scribes, either as amanuenses of divine forces, compilers of pre-existing sources, or sources of auctorial authority themselves. Following this, we encounter images of teaching, drawn largely from scholastic contexts but fundamentally modeled on images of Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read, a scene more common than that of the Virgin instructing Christ. An illuminating example, even if it is materially modest in comparison to some of the more famous treasures of the BL, is a Dutch prayerbook-cum-primer produced in Bruges around 1445 (Harley MS 3828), which includes a miniature showing four women being taught by Prudence opposite an alphabet in majuscule and minuscule. The page opening is illustrated and falls, symbolically, at the center of this learned book. We then have depictions of solitary readers, a somewhat late appearance in the longue durée of manuscript illumination that points to a growing engagement with books on an individual basis. This phenomenon is amply documented through other historical sources, of course, but rarely tracked via iconography. Connected to this personal realm is the iconography of book presentation, studied elsewhere by Brigitte Buettner and Eric Inglis, where the idealized and fleeting moment of donation is crystalized, often in the hope of reminding the recipient of the author’s expectation of a reciprocal reward. Sandler then turns to the ritual use of books, in the Mass, Divine Office, and the Passover Seder, before turning to a final, poignant section on the destruction of books, mostly by fire, at the behest of fearful authorities: Nebuchadnezzar; Aristotle; Saint Paul; the Grand Inquisitor of France. It is difficult not to think of the 2023 cyber-attack as the fearsome successor to such acts of vandalism, albeit at a larger scale and under the banner of mammon rather than fanaticism.

Overall, Sandler’s short but luminous manual provides a salutary addition to a surprisingly scanty set of publications on images of books-within-books, joining a volume of collected essays entitled Imago libri: representations carolingiennes du livre (Brepols, 2018), a recent monograph on twelfth-century authorial iconography by Jeffrey Hamburger (Brepols, 2021), and a thin spread of articles by Eric Inglis, Michael Camille, and a few others. Treatments of book representations within full-scale painting, where details of bindings or page contents can be set down in more detail, do exist, but they are mostly for the general reader. This reviewer, for his part, would like to conclude by drawing the reader’s attention to a new online resource, very much inspired by the work of Sandler and others, that finally aggregates thousands of depictions of books in the later Middle Ages and early modern periods into an intuitively searchable database: BASIRA (Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art), which launched in November 2023, and is freely available online at: https://basira.library.upenn.edu.