Seeing Process on the Medieval Page

Dec. 15, 2023

Professor Beatrice Kitzinger and A&A graduate student Megan Coates punctuated the fall semester MARBAS lecture series with a final session that examined process in medieval manuscripts and spotlighted five marvelous resources in the Rare Books collection. Undergraduate and graduate students as well as researchers and faculty from the Index of Medieval Art and the Departments of Near Eastern Studies, History, English, and, of course, Art & Archaeology comprised the capacity audience. Coates and Kitzinger introduced their selections, pointing out indications of choices made by their creators, before inviting the group to look closely themselves.

Beatrice Kitzinger examines an illuminator's practice sheet

Beatrice Kitzinger examines an Italian illuminator's practice sheet from ca. 1400 (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"It was great to see both faculty and students presenting at MARBAS, and a great mix from across the university engaging in their work," said Curator of Rare Books Eric White. "Special Collections is also very pleased not only that materials donated by famous collectors of the past found their way into the mix, but also a very recent acquisition: the ca. 1400 Italian illuminator’s practice sheet."

Coates compared two gospel books, focusing on the process evident in the 12th-century exemplar which included four inserted folios.  Each folio included portraits that had been embellished a century later, converting drawings to icons.

Coates theorized that the sheets originated in an artist's model or pattern book based on clues like a head that had been drawn, erased, and redrawn, or the inclusion of simply a head in a corner of the page. In another example, a halo and text were clearly added to an image of Mary and Christ long after their original rendering. Coates suggested that, as a receptacle of other information, the manuscript represents a process in and of itself.

Megan Coates points to a display as Beatrice Kitzinger looks on

Megan Coates presents the various inserted folios as Beatrice Kitzinger looks on (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Comparing these icons with those of the other gospel book, Elthōmen loipon kai epi tous euangelistas kai apostolous…, Coates discovered replicated underdrawings, indicating that the drawings from the earlier gospel book had become models for future iterations, with interpretative distinguishing details like cityscapes applied to experiment with the context in which the figures were placed. Understanding the process revealed by these underdrawings is a focus of Coates’s current research.

One of the four folios is of a different size and paper than the others and holds clues that have yet to be revealed; suspecting another layer of text to be hidden under the surface, Coates took the opportunity at last year’s workshop on the Palimpsests of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai to use spectral imaging on the page which revealed that it is, in fact, a palimpsest. Deciphering the undertext also remains a work in progress. 

Beatrice Kitzinger points out details in a manuscript

Beatrice Kitinzger presents Le manuel des péchés (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Taking the baton, Kitzinger presented two manuscripts and a fascinating new single-sheet addition to the collection.

Examining the 15th-century telling of Roman history in L'histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar; Faits des romains, Kitzinger spoke about the workshop process of Parisian commercial production. Its assembly illustrates work in stages by different teams. Instructions to the illuminators are included, for example, in varying degrees of specificity. Kitzinger pointed out that the more general instructions to paint a battle scene or a castle assumed the illuminator to have a visual bank of vignettes to draw from. More specific scenes, like the cesarean birth of Julius Caeser, instruct the illuminator to render women, knives, and the infant Caeser with a full head of hair.

The Anglo Norman manual for lay religious practice Le manuel des péchés, produced in the thirteenth century, left the illuminator with far greater agency and responsibility for devising the motifs.  Before investigating one of the miniature illustrations in depth, the audience benefitted from audience member Department of English Professor D. Vance Smith's reading the associated story on the vice of pride in Middle English. This was a particular highlight for Jessica Savage, Index Art History Specialist. 

A group examines an illuminator's test sheet

Pamela Patton examines the illuminator's test sheet (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Savage described the image as follows: “In the lower margin, a striking vignette of the ‘Hypocritical Monk’ is depicted in a full black habit, reclining on a four-poster bed, with a black winged dragon plunging into his open mouth. Its beastly tail is wound around his legs, a visual reminder of being tangled up in one’s transgressions.” Savage continued, “As part of this up-close study of book production and process, Kitzinger drew our attention to the fragmentary marginal instructions to the illuminator, noting that in three words they suggest something was to be put in the head of the afflicted monk, METEZ [...] MALADE [...] TESTA […].” Savage noted that the “Sin of Pride” in the Princeton Manuel des Péchés (Princeton University Library, MS. Taylor 1) was cataloged into the Index of Medieval Art database by Index Research Scholar Emerita Adelaide Bennett Hagens in 2004.

Having heard the complete story, the audience could better evaluate the illuminator's thought process in determining which element of the story to paint. Kitzinger pointed out that the illuminator's omissions activated greater engagement on the part of the viewer.

Finally, Kitzinger spotlighted a new addition to the collection in the form of an Italian illuminator’s test sheet dated to the early fourteenth century. In a single sheet, Kitzinger pointed out, myriad techniques are on display.  Broad to exquisitely fine brush strokes and experimentations with color expressly show the medieval hand at work.  

Five people examine two manuscripts

From left, Curator of Rare Books Eric White, Professor Charlie Barber, and A&A graduate students Megan Coates, Jenica Brown, and Earnestine Qiu (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)