Middle Ages

Book of Kells Folio 34 Description!

I sometimes have trouble finding satisfying discussions of illuminated manuscripts in general art history textbooks. I have found that many descriptions, while very informative about a specific illumination or artistic style, tend to focus on illuminated manuscript pages as isolated works of art. Although I realize that such isolated descriptions are part and parcel of the general survey textbook (it’s impossible to discuss everything in depth!), I still am a little disappointed. I feel like medieval gospel books were meant to be experienced as cohesive whole, not as merely isolated illuminations.

One such example of an isolated description can be found in a recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which discusses the “Chi-rho-iota (XPI)” page, folio 34 recto of the Book of Kells (c. 800, shown right). Although I really like that Gardner’s touches on historical context by explaining that this particular passage would be read on Christmas Day, I feel like a sense of the illustration within the biblical text and Book of Kells itself (as a whole) is relatively lacking.

This being said, I was quite delighted when I read the following passage yesterday afternoon (see below). This is one of the best descriptions of Folio 34 that I have seen in an introductory textbook. Although the passage doesn’t exactly describe the folio in relation to any other pages in the book (and, as I mentioned earlier, I realize such analysis is largely beyond the scope of an introductory textbook), I really like that the author tries to tie the decoration of the page into the actual context of Saint Matthew’s gospel:

“The earliest surviving Hiberno-Saxon religious manuscripts reveal and interest in decorating the letters themselves, a not surprising development when we remember that the words were believed to be proclamations of God. This tendency reaches its peak in the Book of Kells. When the text discussing the life of Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1:22) reaches the point where the Incarnation of Christ is mentioned, the letters burst out into joyful, exuberant patterns. This whole page is devoted to three words – Christi autem generatio (“the birth of Christ”) – with most of the page devoted to the first three letters of Christi (XPI). The X is the dominant form, and it surges outward in bold and varied curves to embrace Hiberno-Saxon whorl patterns. Interlace fills other areas, and simple colored frames set off the large initials amid the consuming excitement. The human head that forms the end of the P also dots the I. Near the lower left base of the X, a small scene shows cats watching while two mice fight over a round wafter similar to those used in the Mass – a scene surely of symbolic intent, even if its meaning is lost to us today. The pulsating vitality of the word of God is thus visually demonstrated.”1

Have you found any descriptions of illuminated manuscripts that you like? Do you know of other descriptions that help the reader to better understand either the biblical context or the folio’s physical context within the gospel book itself?

UPDATE: The Book of Kells is available online as a digital copy through the Trinity College Library in Dublin (which has the book in its permanent collection). You can see a high-res copy of the Book of Matthew, for example, with Folio 34 HERE. The library also has provided an introductory page to the Book of Kells.

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 171.


St. Benedict and Thornbushes

I have a new appreciation for St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 CE) this afternoon, just having spent a few hours pulling wild thornbushes out of my backyard. I think that is the most grueling and painful exercise I have ever had while gardening, even though I was equipped with gloves and protective clothing. But back to St. Benedict: while battling these bushes, I couldn’t help but think of the the saint. According to legend, Benedict cast himself into a thorn bush while naked, to escape the wily temptation of a woman.

When I discuss Benedict in my art classes, I sometimes joke with my students that the thornbush experience was the early equivalent to “taking a cold shower” today. (And it was, at least for some monks!) But since this morning I have a new appreciation for thornbush hoppers. Anyone who willingly throws himself into a thornbush – with the intent of getting pricked – deserves sainthood in my opinion. Definitely.

I thought it would be fun to post some images of Benedict and the thornbush. I was only familiar with a few examples before writing this post, and frankly, I’ve been surprised that I can’t find more works of art dedicated to this legend online. Perhaps monastics wanted to remember that Benedict overcame temptation, but not necessarily focus on exactly how he overcame temptation? Or perhaps there are more images that exist, but they are cloistered away from the public eye? Any medievalists have thoughts on this topic?

“Saint Benedict Overcomes Temptation” (note the devil in the center scene, who is bringing the woman to tempt Benedict) and “Saint Benedict and the Thornbush” (right), Romanesque choir capital, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire Abbey, France, 11th century
Sodoma II, Life of Saint Benedict: Benedict is Tempted, fresco cycle from Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore (1505-08)

Giovanni di Cansalvo, Saint Benedict Throwing Himself into the Thornbush, ca. 1435-39, Chiostro degli Aranci, Badia Fiorentina

Hermann Nigg, Saint Benedict Writing the Rules, c. 1926
Although I don’t think this painting is fantastic, I think it’s interesting that the artist included a thorny bush on the side of the painting. This painting depicts Benedict writing his sacred maxims and precepts; these Rules have come to be part of the foundation for monastic living in Western society.
I found another fresco described online (without an image, unfortunately) at the Subiaco Monastery, just southeast of Rome. In this fresco, Saint Francis is grafting roses onto the thornbushes into which Saint Benedict threw himself. I think that the choice of Saint Francis is especially appropriate, since Saint Francis was also known to throw himself into thornbushes to avoid sexual temptation.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has proposed some interesting symbolism for thorny plants, given this context of Saint Francis and Saint Benedict. It may be that in some situations thorny plants symbolized chastity and virtue, since these plants functioned as an aid for sexual abstinence!

Our Mother of Mercy and Y1K

Madonna della Misericordia, Church of San Tomá, Venice, mid 14th century to early 15th century
Remember Y2K? I can’t believe that it has been ten years since we experienced the Y2K drama and anxiety. I recall that my mom gave our neighbors hand-powered flashlights as a holiday gift that year (almost entirely in jest).
Remember how some people proclaimed that Y2K would bring the end of the world? This actually isn’t surprising, since history has shown a repeated end-of-the-world fear with the approach of a new year/century/millenium. Actually, it’s interesting to see how this fear even has affected art. I think the most prominent (and interesting) example is the imagery for Our Mother of Mercy, which displays the Virgin protectively taking her protégés/children underneath her cloak (see a late medieval example above). Henry Kraus has discussed that this iconography developed in the tenth century by the order of Cluny, “possibly in response to the terror of the world’s end that spread abroad with the approach of the Year Thousand.”1 This protective, loving image of the Virgin must have brought comfort to devout medieval worshipers who feared that the world was ending in Y1K.
Is it safe to argue, then, that the Middle Ages experienced a “Y1K”? I think so. The iconography for Our Mother of Mercy gives evidence for it! Ha!
Do you have a favorite work of art that is inspired by an end-of-the-world theme?
Having written about this end-of-the-world gloom, it seems a little ironic to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Nonetheless, I hope that this upcoming year is better and brighter for everyone. Personally, I’m not focusing on possibilities that the world will end anytime in 2011. In fact, I’ve already thought to write a post on Mayan art with the advent of 2012… 😉
Happy New Year!
1 Henry Kraus, “Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1982), 84. See also Mlle. Chatel, “Le culte de la vierge Marie en France, du Ve au XIIIe siécle,” Théses-Sorbonne (Paris, 1945): 151-52.

Crucifix of Gero Conundrum

Okay, Ottonian art experts, I need help. I’m trying to resolve an issue regarding the Crucifix of Gero (c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, shown left). The most recent editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages and Stokstad’s Art History mention that this statue functions as a reliquary. According to both books, a cavity in the back of Christ’s head contains a piece of the Host.1

HOWEVER, I recently read here that no cavity exists behind the sculpture. “Despite older sources even citing the exact dimensions of such a reliquary opening in the Cologne sculpture, the restoration of the Gero Cross in 1976 revealed that no receptacle exists in the corpus’ head.”2

What’s the real story behind this? Who should I believe? I’m inclined to believe the 1976 restoration news, but it seems incredulous that both major art history textbooks would have missed the “There is no reliquary cavity!” memo that was written almost 35 years ago. Did any further evidence come about after the 1976 restoration? Or should I continue to lose faith in canonical art history textbooks?

One other thought. Despite that there might not be an opening in its back, I think this statue could still function as a reliquary: in the 10th century Archbishop Gero allegedly placed the Host and True Cross in the once-cracked wood of the statue (see footnote #2 below). But I guess there’s no way to prove that miraculous story through scientific analysis, is there?

1 Marilyn Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 448. See also Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (Backpack Edition: The Middle Ages), 13th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth: 2010), 201304.

2 Søren Kaspersen and Erik Thunø, Decorating the Lord’s Table: On the Dynamics Between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006), 59 (available online here). This same book also mentions the tradition of how the Crucifix of Gero came to be a so-called reliquary: “The early eleventh century Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg contains a miracle story involving Gero of Cologne, who served as archbishop from 969 to 976. The passage in Chapter Two of Book Three reads: ‘Meanwhile, Archbishop Gero of the see of Cologne died. As I have only spoken briefly about him, I will not relate a few things which I previously held back. He had a crucifix artfully made out of wood, which now stands above his grave, in the middle of the church. When he noticed a fissure in the crucifix’s head, he healed it, trusting not in himself, but rather in the healthy remedy of the highest artisan. He took a portion of the body of the Lord, our unique comfort in every necessity, and part of the health-bringing cross, and placed them together in the crack. Then, prostrating himself, he tearfully invoked the name of the Lord. When he arose, he found that the damage had been healed through his humble benediction.'” See Kaspersen and Thunø, 45-46 (available online here).


The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.