Ci nous dit, originally known as Une composition de la Sainte Ecriture, was written around 1320 by an anonymous author perhaps in the region around Soissons, and survives today in 18 exemplars. The oldest and most comprehensively decorated copy is the subject of Christian Heck’s study: ms. 26-27 (1078-1079) at the Musée Condé in Chantilly. Created around 1340, the Chantilly manuscript consists of over 780 chapters, each one of which opens with the salutation “Ci nous dit que…” and is accompanied by one or more miniatures. As Heck explains in Chapter 1, it is difficult to categorize the Ci nous dit, for it combines aspects associated with several different genres. Essentially, however, it is a moralizing and spiritual treatise organized according to a comprehensive world-view that is concerned with lay Christian instruction, or, as Heck suggests, a moralizing encyclopedia for the laity.
Incorporating typology, patristic and contemporary exegesis, saintly vitae, exempla and fables, Ci nous dit offers a coherent theological and cosmological view intended to instruct the lay reader in appropriate Christian thinking and action. Because the text of Ci nous dit has been thoroughly analyzed elsewhere, Heck offers a summary of its contents: Chapters 1-150 encompass the Statements of Faith and the path to Salvation; chapters 151-296 are moralizing, particularly focusing on gluttony, vanity and divine punishment; chapters 297-435 concentrate on conversion, humility, confession and preaching; chapters 436-604 discuss the life of the Christian, the acts of mercy, the “fruits of suffering” and how to listen to Mass; chapters 605-780 offer examples from the saints’ lives and the miracles of the Virgin; and the final chapters appropriately discuss the Last Things, and the separation of the Just from the Damned.
In Chapter 2, Heck discusses the extraordinary status of the illuminations of the Chantilly manuscript within the group of surviving exemplars, and suggests an attribution. Relying primarily on the research of François Avril, Richard Rouse and Marie-Thérèse Gousset, Heck attributes the manuscript to the workshop of a Parisian follower of Pucelle, an artist by the name of Mahiet who is known through inscriptions in the Belleville Breviary. Mahiet may possibly be identified with Mathieu de Vavasseur, a Norman cleric who was a libraire juré at the University of Paris in 1342 and who died around 1350.
Chapter 3 concerns the interpretive and narrative structures of the text. As Heck demonstrates, rarely does the author (or the illuminator) offer the reader literal transcription of Scriptural events or saintly vitae. While typology is sometimes invoked, in general neither chronology nor narrative sequence are of particular importance to the author, who instead is interested in bringing out the moralizing meaning of Scripture and vitae within the context of Christian spirituality and action – what Heck calls a “commentaire typologique morale” (p. 39). In Chapter 4, Heck links this to the growing interest in didactic literature aimed toward lay audiences in the fourteenth century, and especially to the concurrent rise of new types of subject matter. While numerous miniatures reflect long-established iconographic traditions (particularly relating to biblical subject matter), new iconographic themes in the manuscript include images of public life in the Church and pilgrimage; preaching and conversion; the dangers of idolatry, magic and heresy; courtly life and manners; scenes of justice and law; and finally, punishment and death.
Chapters 5 through 8 offer the most detailed and interesting analyses. In the first of these chapters, Heck explores the myriad of ways in which animals are illustrated in this manuscript, culminating a long tradition of using beasts for moralizing purposes in bestiaries, exempla and fables. While some of the illustrations are fairly literal, rooted in Scripture (such as Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows), for the most part animals are used as mirrors of human behavior, and vice versa. Some of this anticipates certain popular texts directed at lay audiences, such as the Propriétés des Choses, an encyclopedia written by Bartholomaeus Anglicus around 1245 that was translated by Jean Corbechon at the behest of Charles V of France in 1372 (although vernacular translations were circulating before then). On the other hand, some of the animals are used to express highly convoluted metaphors, revealing a particularly innovative imagination at work.
Similarly, Ci nous dit also reflects the rise of new religious practices and beliefs in the fourteenth century, in particular, the rise of affective devotion and piety, as Heck elucidates in Chapter 6. Here we see some of the earliest references to themes that will preoccupy devotional culture at the end of the fourteenth century and throughout the fifteenth century. These include devotion to the suffering of Christ and the Arma Christi; empathetic identification with Christ as encouraged in later texts such as the Meditationes Vitae Christi, as well as concepts and practices that will be promulgated by the Devotio Moderno, including the new emphasis on the heart in religious life. At the same time, these contemporary influences are deeply imbued with knowledge of much older theories and ideas. For example, many of the miniatures stress the necessity of turning toward heaven, an idea that the miniatures visually express through posture and the symbolism of sky and earth, as informed by ancient theories concerning man’s vertical nature (pp. 54-55).
Indeed, the breadth of awareness of contemporary spiritual and theological literature and of older exegesis is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Ci nous dit. Moreover, the ingenious manner in which these references are often invoked and intertwined in the text means that the artist of the Chantilly manuscript had to create original iconography for many of the miniatures, as Heck demonstrates in Chapter 7. The Chantilly manuscript represents the earliest appearance of iconographic themes that would become popular later, including Virgil and the Mouth of Truth, which will appear in prints only after 1500. Indeed, as Heck explains, the manuscript is a veritable unicumfor its wealth of completely original iconography. Examples include the field divided into four parts (ms. 27, fol. 28) to represent the four stages of life and their respective fruits; the Unicorn captured by two virgins (ms. 26, fol. 64), who respectively represent the Church who collects the unicorn’s blood (i.e. the blood of the martyrs) for the faithful, and the Jews who kill through hatred; or the recurring motif of the gift of the Three Crowns.
In Chapter 8, Heck connects the miniatures to contemporary theoretical debates concerning images, such as the role of the image in spirituality, and the issue of image and likeness. He argues, for example, that the miniature depicting the story of the master who sends his portrait to another master to judge its verisimilitude, showcases new ideas about the role of the portrait in expressing inner character (ms. 26, fol. 167). Similarly the role of images in lay devotion, and in particular their capacity to come to life, is expressed in several miniatures throughout the manuscript (for example, the Lactation of St. Bernard, the hemorrhaging woman who is healed by Christ and erects a statue in his honor in her garden, which in turn can heal [ms. 27, fol. 20v], images of Christ that bleed spontaneously, etc). Ultimately, the miniatures of the Chantilly Ci nous dit reflect a new centrality of images in lay spirituality, and argue for their essential role in devotional practice.
The rest of the book, indeed comprising the bulk of its text, consists of individual descriptions of each of the 812 miniatures, which are divided among the 781 chapters. This is followed by a comprehensive bibliography and color illustrations of all the miniatures in the manuscript. It is perhaps understandable, given the sheer number of reproductions required, that very little comparative material was included in the illustrations. This is unfortunate as some of this material is not necessarily well known even among specialists. Moreover, due to the uneven quality of the photographic reproductions, readers will find them more useful for examining the iconography of the miniatures rather than their technical or stylistic aspects. Many are extremely red to the point that the vellum ground even appears pink (figs. 142, 162). Others appear to be slightly underexposed (figs. 159, 482, 490), while some appear to have been overexposed, thus they required significant manipulation of the contrast and saturation levels (fig. 520). However, this is a handsomely produced book, as is typical of Brepols, which is to be commended for allowing such a generous number of illustrations, especially in today’s often parsimonious publishing environment. The Ci nous dit offers a fascinating glimpse into the rich world of lay devotion in mid-fourteenth century, and the sheer magnitude and complexity of this manuscript is sure to reward further study.
New Mexico State University