Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Lot Can be Learned from a Single Miniature

Note; all images in this blog were sourced from the web, Their present location is noted, when known

A couple weeks ago I did an article on chairs; one of the images featured in that article got me to thinking about a lot of other things besides chairs which were revealed in that miniature. This blog posting will examine that one tiny "historiated initial" for some of the many things we can learn about the Middle Ages from it.
British Library, Egerton
MS 809 fol 17r c1100
This post is in a different writing format to that which I am accustomed to using, in hopes of making it easier for the "too busy" people to still have time to read it.

A medieval miniature is not something to be interpreted in a literal way, they are not photographs, nor were they meant to show 20th century viewers what life at the time of their creation "was like"; they were visual cues to the original viewers, who would readily understand their references. In this little illustration are found many examples which can demonstrate this fact.

According to the story, there were 12 disciples present at the Last Supper, yet here only ten are portrayed. From this point alone, we can infer that the artist was not overly concerned with exact details.
Only 10 of the twelve disciples are depicted, but...
Medieval artwork is filled with both symbols and symbolism, Here we find the image of the halo, which was an emblem that evolved over the middle ages, from an emblem showing the sacredness of Christ, to one showing holiness of saints in general. Although there are only 10 disciples portrayed, the artist did include 12 halos to represent all the disciples present; there simply was not enough room to fit them all into the picture.
... there are 12 halos representing all 12 apostles.
Symbolism in art was a semi-fluid phenomenon, what was portrayed in a particular way in one era gave way to a different format in another. In the later middle ages, Judas was always portrayed without an halo, symbolizing his lack of 'saintliness', yet in this miniature we see he has one, at the same time, two other disciples do not. The fact that Judas sits on the opposite side of the table from the other disciples is this artist means of portraying his true outcast status, this became the general formula for most other depictions of this scene in all succeeding centuries of the Middle Ages.
Black arrow pointing out Judas's Halo, two other disciples
with no halo pointed out in yellow
Although Judas is portrayed with an halo,  (Other illustrators had already began omitting his halo by the 12th century) there is a black raven which further symbolizes the evil spirit of Judas's heart. This is, again, a non-literal object in the illustration.
A raven is a medieval symbol of evil

Interpreting the physical objects in this miniature in a literal way also poses many difficulties. 11 men cannot fit on a straight bench and all reach something on a round table, it just is not physically possible. Two dimensional images allow many 'optical illusions'. At the base of the table, we can see the apostles feet on a straight footrest, yet even those on the end are shown as able to reach to the centre of the table.
The arrows point out the footrest which is in front of the
(not pictured, but implied) bench.
(Other versions of this picture actually show a bench too.)

Another difficulty we encounter by trying to use the elements in this image in a literal manner to reconstruct actual objects, would be the chair which Judas occupies. Medieval artists did not have a sense of perspective as is generally now used in artwork to give an illusion of three dimensional-ism, thus we encounter all sorts of problems with arranging the various parts of an objects in a realistic way. The problem this artist got into was one which many artists even today encounter.
By attempting to make the chair fit the form
of the seated occupant, it was necessary to
depict the seat at a slanted angle.
There is an mental conflict of fighting the form we know something has, versus what it appears like when drawn on paper. in this case, the artist knew that a chair seems to slope 'uphill' when viewed, but at the same time, he knows what the profile of the chair looks like, and he knows that it and the table behind it, both rest on a floor which is flat and level, thus he is confused as to how to merge those three concepts into one image. This is a common problem throughout the medieval period, and has tripped up many modern persons attempting to interpret what they see in a painting.
The artist knows that the floor is flat, but he also observes
that the chair seems to slope upwards when viewed
This image of a chair from the website Blood and Sawdust is of very similar form to the one depicted in the miniature, but its legs are thinner and less artfully turned, and the finials are much simpler.

Another interesting point to be made from the observation of this illuminated initial is in reference to the table. Most books and websites referring to medieval furniture will give some version of the idea that "tables were boards set on top of trestles" (many of them were), but here we see a round table with artfully turned legs. Again, this is not a 'plan' to use to make a table from, but it shows a type of table, and the basic form of the legs. The little dots may refer to additional carving or other ornamentation. If we wish to have a better idea of what a table such as the artist had in mind might have looked like, we would need to consult sculptures, columns, relics, and other three dimensional objects with similar forms.
This view points out the turned legs of the table
The following illustration comes from a Carolingian ivory panel, depicting St John, perhaps this is the sort of foot the artist had in mind for the table.
From an ivory panel in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art
Another actual medieval object with this knob and plinth foot detail can be found in the  Residenz M√ľnchen Schatzkammer. This is a late 9th century portable altar from the time of King Arnulf.
Notice that it even has little beads as ornament

The fact that this table is not an anomaly is shown by examining another slightly earlier (and lest artistically accomplished) version of the same scene from a manuscript of about 1050, held in one of the medieval libraries of Switzerland. (from e-codices website Sarnen, Benediktinerkollegium Cod. 83 fol 6r)

In this illustration, the legs are
of straight turned  form, but they
also show a swelled foot, very
much like the 'bun' feet of
much 17th century furniture
It is very useful to consult medieval artworks for clues to a bygone age, but it is also very important not to view things with a modern sense of photographic depiction in mind. They must not be interpreted literally, or as 'plans' and 'illustrations' of exact objects. The key here, is that they are only one part of a complex puzzle, and, like a murder mystery, unless one finds all the clues, he will not have a clear idea of "who done it", or in this case, "what it looked like".

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