Art and Architecture in Medieval France: Medieval Architecture, Sculpture, Stained Glass, Manuscripts, the Art of the Church Treasuries

By Whitney S. Stoddard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 30
Illuminated Manuscripts

THERE ARE some Romanesque murals still in existence, and Gothic stained glass can be regarded as a combination of mosaic and painting techniques, but the greatest quantity of painting that remains to us from the Middle Ages is in manuscripts. Some murals once adorned the walls of mansions and castles, but the majority have been destroyed. Most of the manuscripts were written and illuminated for the liturgy of the church (see bibliography). Since the Mass or Eucharist is a supreme sacrament of the Christian church, many books such as the Gospels, Sacramentaries, and Missals were written for the celebrant of the Mass. Other manuscripts such as Breviaries, Psalters, Books of Hours, and Prayer Books were created for daily devotional prayer, either public or private. Commencing in the fourteenth century, an affluent aristocracy commissioned illuminated books for personal use and for the joy and pleasure of collecting.

To summarize the changing attitudes toward the treatment of the human form and of space during the Middle Ages, illuminations from eight manuscripts, one panel picture, and one tapestry, all selected from collections in the United States, will be discussed in chronological order (figs. 398- 407). The earliest and latest manuscripts depict the Evangelist Saint Mark, while the six other manuscripts, the panel, and the tapestry interpret the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary.

The Saint Mark of the Four Gospels ( fig. 398) in The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (Morgan Ms. 728, fol. 63v: 8 in. by 6 in.), illuminated between 845 and 882 in the diocese of Reims, illustrates the Carolingian synthesis of northern, barbarian intensity and southern reflections on classical antiquity. The nervous linearism of the folds, the interlocking of the figures, and the staring eyes hark back to the nonhuman art of the nomadic barbarians. (The art of the nomads had become the basis of the interlaced Anglo-Irish art in the seventh and eighth centuries.) In the Saint Mark, the spirit of this two-dimensional and dehumanized point of view is combined with a breath from antiquity, probably penetrating the scriptoria of what is now northern Europe through the circulation of Early Christian manuscripts. Relationships with antiquity are found in the muted illusion of space behind the Evangelist, in the suggested three-dimensionality of his thigh, legs, and arms, and in the pose of the Evangelist with lectern, so reminiscent of pagan philosophers and Early Christian prophets. Pale blues and grays against a layered ground of orange, dull green, red, and blue reinforce this monumental concept. The Evangelist stares intently at his Gospel, while his symbol, the lion, appears above the crenelated wall in the background. The Carolingian renaissance successfully combined these two antithetical traditions: the northern, dehumanized intensity and the Mediterranean monumental classicism. Indeed, the sustained and shifting struggle between the northern and classical points of view is, to oversimplify, the story of Medieval art.

The first Annunciation is in an initial "D" in a Sacramentary illuminated in the scriptorium of Mont-Saint-Michel in the late eleventh century (fig. 399). This manuscript is in The Pierpont

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