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...|
|... there are 12 halos representing all 12 apostles.|
|Black arrow pointing out Judas's Halo, two other disciples|
with no halo pointed out in yellow
|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.
|The artist knows that the floor is flat, but he also observes|
that the chair seems to slope upwards when viewed
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|
|From an ivory panel in the Metropolitan Museum|
|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