The history of the illuminated codex, as the exhibition catalogueMedieval Mastery reminds us, more or less coincides with the Middle Ages. The centrality of reading and writing to medieval life and thought gives such an exhibition license to weave the study of manuscripts into much larger investigations. Here, these larger questions, as well as more traditional art-historical ones, are focused on a body of manuscripts created roughly between the Meuse and the North Sea and westward into modern France between 800 and 1475, a period nicely bracketed by the rules of Charles the Great and Charles the Bold. The exhibition drew from many libraries and included works from areas outside Flanders – and even “Flanders,” the inaccurate if convenient notname used to describe a much broader swath of the southern Netherlands; this distinguished it from many previous shows devoted to the manuscript art of the area of modern Belgium. The catalogue is dedicated to the late Maurits Smeyers, founder and long-serving director of the Center for the Study of Flemish Illuminators in Leuven.
Medieval Mastery opens with an introductory essay that sketches (rather breathlessly, of necessity) medieval manuscripts in their political, historical, and economic dimensions, even as it lays out the organization of the exhibition and the rationale for that organization. There follow two parts: I (Word and Image in Context), a series of seven essays on a range of topics related to the use and significance of books in the Middle Ages, and II (Looking at Books), which pairs four essays with the four sections of the catalogue entries, divided chronologically. The entries themselves are a bit uneven, given the equally difficult challenges of summarizing plentiful material for a famous manuscript and introducing an obscure manuscript about which very little can be known; in any case the fine and generous color reproductions are a blessing.
“Word and Image in Context,” comprising the seven contributions in the first part of the catalogue, is more theoretical in approach. It begins with Samuel IJsserling’s essay, “The Book, the Writing and the Image,” a philosophical meditation on writing, drawing, and reading. It is probably most useful to art historians for the author’s original observations about identifying marks, tracks, and drawings (though they may be puzzled by statements such as, “They [miniatures] create distinction and difference, whereby not everything is the same and indistinct.”). Brigitte Dekeyzer’s essay, “Word and Image: Foundations of the Medieval Manuscript,” introduces the reader to the thorny history of images in medieval (sacred) art, the links between image and text, and theories about the way a medieval viewer might have experienced images. Herman Pleij begins his essay, “Carrying Books,” by discussing a bilingual handbook for learning French or Dutch, written in Bruges ca. 1340. This Livre des métiers/Bouc van Ambachten exemplifies the new enthusiasm for books and the increasing number of vernacular texts available to ordinary people with an eye to self-improvement, and offers glimpses (via the lives of the fictive craftsmen) of a society that has embraced the written word. Pleij explores the social aspects of late-medieval reading – books borrowed per diem for a fee, public readings of entertaining gestes held in rented halls, and a more participatory experience of illustrated books.
A subheading – “Using Books” – distinguishes the next four authors and their apparently more practical subject matter. Christopher de Hamel’s masterful low-key introduction to the varieties of liturgical and devotional texts, “Books in the Church,” is constructed as an imagined tour through a church, as if a casual visit had prompted the tour guide to an off-the-cuff disquisition on medieval liturgy. The reader is guided through the use and composition of various books for public and private observance, introduced to the bewildering interaction of fixed and movable feasts and their celebration, and invited to appreciate the functional logic of layout and decoration. Will Noel’s “Books in the Home: Psalters and Books of Hours,” explores the combinations of texts and pictorial accompaniments that lay patrons favored, as the psalter gradually gave way to the book of hours in popular devotion. Such was the elasticity of the personalized book of hours that one owner is depicted in his book not as an observer or even as a supplicant before a holy figure, but as Lazarus himself, presumably soon to be raised from the dead. Bert Cardon’s essay, “Books at Court,” focuses on a string of rulers and their tendencies, political as well as aesthetic, in manuscript patronage, including Carolingian, Ottonian, Capetian, and Valois bibliophiles. Karen de Coene’s essay, “My Wisdom in a Book: On the Collection of Knowledge,” expands the subject of collection-building into psychology and the social motivations for amassing a collection. Her discussion next turns to manuscripts that are themselves collections – compendia and encyclopedias – linking intellectual and physical collecting.
The historical component of the catalogue, Part II, is divided into four sections, all outstanding summaries of complex material, that deal with the making and use of books by different groups of manuscript patrons over time – imperial, monastic, private, and ducal. Lawrence Nees’s essay, “Imperial Networks,” traces the recurrence of themes and artistic personalities in the ‘Court School’ and the “chains of friendship” that bound intellectuals across the Carolingian empire, and adjusts our notion of the way a scriptorium operated. As royal patronage becomes weaker, more diffuse centers of patronage emerge and artists cater increasingly to local aristocrats and independent monasteries. Walter Cahn’s essay, “Monastic Spirituality,” discusses the efflorescence of monasteries in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, reminding us of the “ascetic dimension” of monastic culture. He discusses texts that had particular appeal for the readers in and around northeastern France and Flanders and were illustrated frequently: Flavius Josephus and saints’ lives (especially local saints). Adelaide Bennett’s essay, “Continuity and Change in the Religious Book Culture of the Lowlands in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries,” makes her point about the region’s perplexing wealth of traditions with the cautionary example of Valenciennes, a Francophone city under the aegis of the German-speaking Holy Roman Empire, one side of the city belonging to the diocese of Arras and the other to Cambrai. She follows manuscript production as it “thrived, peaked or bottomed out” in various towns, noting the growing reliance of church personnel on professional rather than monastic artists, and the increasing initiative of the laity in commissioning books. Dominique Vanwijnsberghe’s essay, “At the Court as in the City: The Miniature in the Burgundian Netherlands in the Fifteenth Century,” besides delivering the expected survey, has a judicious historiographic slant. He wisely suggests that we tear our eyes away from the patronage of the dukes and take a closer look at the character of individual towns and their artisans (though he stops short of proposing scholarship ‘in the city as at the courts’), and the migration of talent that clearly helped make the Southern Netherlands such a promising home for illuminators.
Princeton, New Jersey