Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Text of the Mystic Ark as a Reportatio

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Text of the Mystic Ark as a Reportatio

Article excerpt

In one of his fictive moral letters to Lucilius, Seneca, the genuinely amoral Roman statesman and philosopher, wrote, "It is necessary that you pay close attention-and blame the difficulty of these things on Plato, not on me!"1 I could easily say the same thing about Hugh of Saint Victor with regard to The Mystic Ark, a text so difficult to read and to understand that its very difficulty seems to be the reason why it has previously been almost completely ignored by art historians.

But this would be unfair to Hugh-or at least a little unfair. For, despite what can only be described as a horrific text, equal blame must be shared with modern scholars. Indeed, just as scholars used to wonder how such a disorderly thinker as Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis could have conceived such orderly artworks, so some of them still wonder how such an orderly thinker as Hugh could have produced such a disorderly text as The Mystic Ark, the written expression of the supremely orderly image of The Mystic Ark. In an earlier study, I showed how the order in some of Suger's artworks was the result of Hugh's role as a principal advisor to Suger on his art program.6 It can now also be shown that the disorderliness of the text of The Mystic Ark is owed to the fact that the text is not by Hugh per se but is a reportatio: while the intellectual, visual, and oral images of The Mystic Ark are or were by Hugh, the main body of the text of The Mystic Ark was not actually written by Hugh himself, but by an anonymous reporter as something similar to lecture notes, although Hugh remains its author, morally speaking.

Having failed to make this fundamental observation, scholars have in many cases needlessly compounded the difficulties of this tortuous writing with equally tortuous explanations, hoping to force the round pegs of the evidence into the square holes of their preconceived arguments. Twisting and turning more than the serpentine attribute of a medieval personification of Dialectic, these arguments have such potential for causing confusion that it is only by addressing them individually that a coherent view of this complex text can be presented and "the difficulty of these things" kept to a minimum.

On the basis of both a passage in The Mystic Ark that refers to The Moral Ark as already written and a number of references in The Moral Ark that speak of the painting of The Mystic Ark as preexistent, the traditional view has been simply that The Moral Ark was written first and that The Mystic Ark was then written in order to describe the painting of the ark-schema that is referred to in The Moral Ark. Although this order of composition may be correct as far as it goes, most scholars have ignored the greater significance of these same references in The Moral Ark to the preexistent painting and the actual relation between the painting of The Mystic Ark, the treatise of The Moral Ark, and the text of The Mystic Ark, and none have seriously questioned why the text of The Mystic Ark should be so unlike Hugh's other writings in its lack of clarity.

In a pair of, at times, contradictory studies on Hugh and The Mystic Ark, Patrice Sicard, a canon regular, has attempted to go further than those before him in trying to articulate the origins of the painting and text of The Mystic Ark and their relation to The Moral Ark.7 Despite a great deal of very useful and much-appreciated work, Sicard makes two basic errors of interpretation that fundamentally affect the vast majority of his extended analysis of the subject. The first is his lack of recognition that the text of The Mystic Ark is a reportatio.&


The initial obstacle in coming to an understanding of the nature and function of the text of The Mystic Ark immediately presents itself in the absence of any introductory statement regarding its purpose, a statement it very much needs. With no preface whatsoever, the text begins abruptly in the first person (the voice of Hugh) and proceeds in a very uneven series of seemingly practical instructions for the production of the painting of The Mystic Ark: now being very methodical, now adopting a sermon-like quality, now slipping into an irredeemably laconic tone, toward the end seemingly losing interest in the undertaking, and finally concluding with a very brief statement on the function of the text that is something less than illuminating. …

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