Art in the Service of the Word
Despite (or because of) the sanctity of the Christian word, medieval artists in northern Europe were willing to deform the letters that make up that word. Letters could be decorated, as in the insular gospel books; they could also serve as supports for pictures. A huge initial C, the first letter of the Latin word "Concede" [grant], dominates a page from a manuscript known as the Drogo Sacramentary, made in the northern French city of Metz around the middle of the ninth century for Drogo, Metz's archbishop . The maker of the manuscript broke up the word, moving the initial down and to the right (the rest of Concede is on the second line of text; the first is devoted to a title). Most surprisingly, he used the initial as the frame for several figurative scenes, creating what is called a historiated initial. At top right, the Virgin Mary lies in bed, having just given birth to Christ; Joseph is beneath her; and in a small, separate compartment somewhat to the left, the infant Jesus is watched over by the ox and ass. Toward the middle of the letter three shepherds are about to learn of Christ's birth. And at the bottom of the C the Christ child receives his first bath (an event not in the Gospels, but known from later medieval legends).
The text is similarly disrupted on another page of the Drogo Sacramentary . A large initial T introduces two words, "Te igitur" [You, therefore]. Instead of reading from left to right and top to