Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Gilt Visions: Courtly Culture and the Otherworld in the Mabinogion

I have recently been examining the issue of ‘materiality’ in History of Art as part of my PhD research. Rather than discuss my research directly, I want to explore the issue of materiality in the medieval literature of Wales. In order to make this a more manageable post, I will be examining materiality in the first four tales—Branches as they are commonly called—of the Mabinogion as signs of the Otherworld entering into the narratives.[1] To briefly introduce the Mabinogion, it is a collection of medieval Welsh prose stories, first referred to as such in 1795 by Willam Owen Pughe and later popularised by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest. Many of the stories appear in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both fourteenth-century manuscripts. Scholarship generally agrees that the tales are derived from earlier sources, likely oral traditions, best seen in the older poetic verses that crop up throughout the text. While the first four tales of the collection follow a general, if episodic, linear progression, the subsequent tales do not. The stories themselves contain monsters, giants, wondrous landscapes, magic both active and passive, enchanted items, and a purposely archaic view of the past, which allows the tales to exist in a nebulous historical time far removed from our present and even before the scribes of the two aforementioned manuscripts.
Welsh (?) Gold Hoop Brooch: 7th Century

As for the Otherworld, John Carey initially defines the Otherworld at its most minimal as ‘a place inhabited by supernatural beings and itself exhibiting supernatural characteristics’.[2] Carey goes onto define this further, noting how the Otherworld appears in a spatial paradox with the mundane, oftentimes separate while at others imminent.[3] Additionally, Carey notes how time operates differently in the Otherworld, while the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the Otherworld oftentimes possess preternatural characteristics.[4] Josef Baudiš too notes that the Otherworld can also be seen through an ethnic lens, whereby ‘an alien race and a distant country might have been regarded as an Other World’ perhaps arising from ‘some prehistoric expedition[s]’.[5] Alfred Siewers goes onto define the term further as containing, ‘associations with ancestors and art as well as with the natural world…connected with everyday human experiences through prehistoric mounds, trees, the sea, lakes and rivers’.[6] This element of the Other and of wonderment, appearing simplest as magic, can help mark instances of when the Otherworld can be seen in the narrative. Carey observes, ‘to the ancient Irish the Otherworld lay not only beyond the limits of existence, but also at the very heart of society’, allowing for an Otherworld that is both imminent and distant, expressed in the language of courtly culture and its sumptuous material.[7]I will be examining these moments of overt materiality, defined as such by explicit reference to key aspects of clothing and other accoutrements, in the first four Branches as markers of the Otherworld.

Now, explaining materiality could fill at least one blog post, if not a series of them. For the moment, materiality will be regarded as the nuanced term that it is. While containing connotations of material culture, materiality is not connected to materialism. Rather, materiality engages with the material nature of objects, animate, intimate, and even conceptual. The inanimate can address cultural meanings and uses of anything from gold to bones, while animate may engage with ideas of living bodies (or animated material say as tales of weeping statues). As for the conceptual, think of the issues involved with crypto-currencies like Bitcoins or the like; their immateriality is itself an aspect of their material nature, albeit an inversed one. Finally, the viewer doesn’t have to always be conscious of the nature of the material in question, which Daniel Miller calls ‘the humility of things.’ Miller explains, ‘The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviors, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so’.[8] A simple thought experiment to become aware of this can be done by either visually and/or physically examining foreign currency. It feels different, looks different, weighs differently, may not fit into a wallet properly, and the ability to spend it is impeded dependent on the location of where the currency is in the world at that moment in time. Either our fascinations or annoyances with the currency highlight how we engage with money both as a concept and as an object, via its material. Indeed, the more one engages with the new currency the less strange or false it may appear. Simply put, the study of materiality is the study of how materials influence and are influenced by human behaviour.

Italian Brocade Textile: 14th Century

Looking to the First Branch, the Otherworld almost immediately enters the narrative. Pwyll is seen out hunting in the woods, whereupon a group of white hounds with red ears take down a stag in a clearing. Sioned Davies and Andew Welsh both note the importance of white and red as markers of the Otherworld in Welsh and Irish literature.[9] Despite Pwyll’s initial captivation by the hounds, Pwyll ignores this Otherworldly clue and instead drives the pack away. Arawn, the owner of the dogs, eventually enters the scene and chastises Pywll, who then seeks to make amends to the strange but clearly noble figure. Arawn is described as wearing clothes of a ‘light grey material’ carrying ‘a hunting horn’, and is in fact preceded by his dogs, both an Otherworldy sight as well as a symbol of his rank.[10] Arawn’s clothing is described in contract to the silence on what Pwyll may have been wearing. While this occurrence occupies a liminal place in a clearing in the woods, a common motif in Otherworldly encounters, it is preceded by a display of courtly culture.[11] This marvel is further seen in the magic of Arawn and his kingdom of Annwfn, meaning ‘deep within’ or ‘un-world’.[12]Arawn escorts Pwyll to his land, where Pywll is met with ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen’.[13] Pwyll, enchanted into Arawn’s form, is dressed in a ‘golden garment of brocaded silk’.[14] The realm of Annwfn is filled with beauty and wealth, both agriculturally as denoted by the feasting and monetarily through the display of precious metals and gems. Even the inhabitants are more beautiful, beyond that of Pywll’s own realm. Annwfn appears as a distinctly Otherised place, conforming to nearly every definition of the Otherworld listed above, specifically that of a location separate from the mundane world.[15] Later on in the tales, when the character of Rhiannon first appears, she is seen ‘wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse’.[16] After failing to overtake her horse, which always outpaces Pwyll despite not appearing to walk faster than a calm gait, Pwyll notes that ‘some magical’ explanation is to blame. Having spent time in the Otherworld, Pwyll sees what he was not able to before, the presence of the magical through its physical and material markers.

This is not the only tale to feature sumptuous culture marking both earthly elites and otherworldly entrances. In the Third Branch, in a moment of preternatural skill once again associated with the nobility, Manawydan and his companions must flee each town after earning the ire of local craftsmen. Manawydan and Pryderi are able to become exceptional craftsmen in saddle making, shields, and shoemaking seemingly instantly in the narrative, and eventually the local English craftsmen run the group out of town. After failing to settle in England, Manawydan leads the group back to Arberth where after a year of living off the land magic once again appears in Dyfed. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu’s entire narrative trajectory is defined by gaining cultural status markers of manhood, from the weapons that Aranrhod unwittingly fashions him, to the creation of Leu’s wife, Blodeuedd, by Gwydion from flowers. Even Leu’s birth is couched in terms of sumptuous material. After Lleu is birthed by Aranhood in an overtly magical scene involving her stepping over a magic wand, he is simply dropped, abandoned by her, ‘a small something’, which Gwydion notices and takes upon himself to raise.[17] Following the pattern of perception and sumptuous markers, Gwydion wraps the ‘something’ in brocaded silk and hides him in a chest. It is not until an unspecified amount of time later that Gwydion hears the boy moving in the chest, appearing in a metaphorical birth scene surrounded by fabric.[18] Following Leu’s magical birth he is given time to mature in expensive fabrics and enters the narrative again in a metaphorical birth scene. Finally, in the Second Branch, a large Cauldron of Rebirth is introduced. Dead soldiers are placed in the cauldron, after which they emerge alive but mute. While not overtly obvious to our contemporary eyes, even discounting its enchanted state and discovery, the Cauldron of Rebirth is itself a large cauldron, which is tied conceptually to feasting, access to raw materials, and to the craftsmen need to undertake such a task. While not being gold, silk, or leather, the cauldron equally calls attention to sumptuous culture, albeit in a different way.
Welsh Bronze Cauldron: 16th Century

The Otherworld moves throughout the Four Branches from existing as a separate exotic location seeped in magic, preternatural skill, and beauty to lying within the blood and families of the characters. Sumptuous culture, tied to both the Otherworld-as-location and courtly culture, highlight potential Otherworldly encounters by being introduced near important personages. Brocade silk, brooches, and cordovan leather adorn both earthly elites and otherworldly figures, uniting them through the material of finery. Not only does this material appear often in the introduction of powerful characters, it also appears in later tales beyond the first four Branches, most notably in The Dream of the Emperor Maxen. Sumptuous material provides a link between earthly figures and Otherworldly counterparts, with the Otherworld inhabitant described as simply possessing more elite materials and items. While this may be acting as formula to indicate the wondrous, it also subtly ties the more mundane is not preternaturally skilled elites to the magical Otherworld. Material, as much as landscape or even overt displays of magic, connect the two worlds. As such, not only  can sumptuous material be seen as elite, it can also be seen as possessing an quality of the fantastic, providing contemporary readers a view into the ontological importance of elite material culture.

By Samuel

Gold Hoop Brooch: Copyright The British Museum

Brocade Textile: Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medieval Cauldron: Copyright The People's Collection Wales


[1] Now I preface this section with an overt acknowledgement that I am using translated texts; I engaged with this text as an art historian rather than a linguist, and my thoughts reflect this.
[2] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 1.
[3] Ibid.: 13-4.
[4] Ibid,: 14.
[5] Baudiš, Josef, ‘Mabinogion’, Folklore 27 (1916), pp. 31-68, p. 40-1.
[6] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p. 200.
[7] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 15.
[8] Miller, Daniel, ‘Materiality: An Introduction’, in Daniel Miller, eds., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 1-50, p.5.
[9] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 228; Welsh, Andrew. ‘Doubling and Incest in the Mabinogi’, Speculum 65 (1990), pp. 344-62, p. 351.
[10] Dogs appear in several other gift exchanges between nobles in the Four Branches.
[11] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p.200.
[12] Ibid.: 201-2.
[13] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Carey, John, ‘The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition’, in The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature ed. J. Wooding (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), pp. 113-9, p. 118.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 356.
[18] Sheehan, Sarah, ‘Matrilineal Subjects: Ambiguity, Bodies, and Metamorphosis in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’, Journal of Woman in Culture and Society 34 (2009), pp. 319-342, p. 327.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Transition of Orsanmichele: Medieval to Renaissance, Market to Holy Site

Like many of the buildings of Florence, Italy, Orsanmichele has a rich history and use of spolia. According to the National Gallery of Art Washington DC, Orsanmichele is speculated to have once housed a place of worship to Isis in Roman times, and was later utilized by the Lombards of the 8th-9th centuries as an oratory in dedication to San Michele in Orto.[1] In 1239, the building was demolished and later rebuilt in 1290 by Arnolfo di Cambia as a loggia to host the sale of grain.[2] The two-story building allowed for the grains to be housed on the second level of the building where it was less likely to be consumed by pests. The grains were then sent down a shoot (a hollow pillar, meant to mimic the rest of the décor) to the first-story market to be sold through the loggia that welcomed the shoppers of Florence.[3] Upon one of these pillars was an image of the Virgin. Unfortunately now destroyed, the Virgin was said to have blessed visitors with miracles, making the building a holy site.[4] The Virgin’s miracles led to a number of restorations, alterations, and added ornamentation to the building. In this post, I would like to observe the architectural alterations made to the building as it transitioned not only from grain market to sanctuary, but from the Medieval period to the Renaissance. The stylistic changes from one time period to the next and the new function of the building has thus resulted in a unique architectural aesthetic.

In 1304 the loggia suffered a fire, allowing for a great many changes to happen through the mid fourteenth century.[5] The first of the renovations was contributed by the Silk Guild, who provided a new loggia (started and finished between 1337 & 1349) that still stands today.[6] The arches of the loggia consist of a traditional three lancets that form a rounded arch. The columns are topped with Corinthian capitals and the interior of the arch is adorned with geometric forms, most predominately a Catherine Wheel at the top-centre of the arch. The smaller of the geometric forms is a six-lobed flower, possibly a reference to the Florentine Lily also seen in the nearby Palazzo Vecchio.  Do note that at this time of the completion of the loggia it was still open and in-part still used as a market until 1357.[7]

The now closed loggia of Orsanmichele with Gothic ornamentation

Six-lobed Florentine Lilies of Palazzo Vecchio
By 1346, the sacred image of the Virgin began to fade away and was replaced by Madonna delle Grazie (Madonna of Graces) by the artist Bernardo Daddi.[8] Daddi’s Madonna had a surge in popularity just two years after its placement at Orsanmichele due to the spread of the plague.[9] The image was revered as the great healer and was complimented with an ornate tabernacle featuring the life and virtues of Mary, a treat for the eyes of the many pilgrims who sought her blessing. The tabernacle is a hybrid of both the French and Italian Gothic styles—incorporating the more ornate style of the French and the more geometric style of Italy. Although the Italian love of simple mathematics remained the basis for Orsanmichele’s layout, the French ornate style dominated the ornamentation as seen in the image below. The quadripartite ceilings and stained glass are the most prominent of the decorations adopted from the French style.

Daddi's Maddona delle Grazie

As Florence entered the Renaissance, it was decided that Orsanmichele was in need of aesthetic renewal. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, niches were added to the façade in the same style of Daddi’s tabernacle.[10] Within each of the niches, the guilds of Florence commissioned a statue of their patron saint, the most recognisable being the David by Donatello representing the armourers.[11] Most of the niches are currently filled with copies of the original statues which are being restored in the former granary on the second level of Orsanmichele. Some, however, like Donatello’s David, have been moved to museums throughout the city including the Bargello and the Museum of Santa Croce. These statues are the contribution from the Renaissance era, but aside from their date of creation, they are testament to the style of the time period, representing a rebirth of Classical statuary. The figures are adorned in draped clothing, often stand in a contrapasto-like fashion, and have Classical-style curly hair.

Copy of Donatello's David on the exterior wall of Orsanmichele

Over the centuries, Orsanmichele was transformed from an oratory, to a grain market, to a pilgrimage site, and finally, a sanctuary. Although its functional transformation is often emphasised, its architectural alterations are what serve as visual evidence of the building’s improved status. My original objective was to point out the architectural transitions of Orsanmichele, however, this study has also introduced the building's functional changes, which underscores not only its physical transformations, but also its  versatility. 


[1] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[2] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence. Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[3] "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[4] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Zucker, Steven, and Beth Harris. "Orsanmichele | Art History: Florence |Khan Academy."Khan Academy. Khan Academy, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[7] Orsanmichele Church and Museum.
[8] "NGA - Monumental Sculpture from Renaissance Florence." 
[9] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 
[10]  "Orsanmichele." Orsanmichele. SUNY Oneonta, Web. 02 Feb. 2014.
[11] "Orsanmichele Church and Museum - Florence." 

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Monday, 20 January 2014

Why so serious? Phallic trees and humour in medieval imagery

Fig. 1 Detail, BNF fr. 25526, fol. 106v
Several weeks ago the image of a Phallus tree from an illuminated manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (BNF fr. 25526) made rounds through the twittersphere (Fig. 1). Originally tweeted by Sarah Peverly, it was probably the closest thing of to a hype a medieval image can get these days, not only being shared and retweeted throughout social media, but also getting attention from several blogs and even making it to the Times Higher Education. I shared the image on Facebook as well and it got the largest amount of attention compared to anything else ever posted on my profile. So it seems that sex sells, even if the sex predates the modern period. The way the image  appeals to such a large modern audience intrigued me, so that I had a look at the background of this kind of imagery

Fig. 2 Massa Maritima Mural
Phallic trees have in the past been ascribed with a number of meaning by scholars. They have been suggested to be related to ideas of fertility and infertility, witchcraft and virgins and moral decline.1 Though some of these interpretations collide and debate on these questions has been ongoing, I don't wish to side with one particular reading. The appearance of the phallus tree in such different contexts as the Mural in Massa Maritima (Fig. 2) and the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose suggests, however, that its meaning is largely object dependent and should not be generalised.

Instead of siding with one particular argument regarding these images, I wish to point out one aspect that is repeatedly left out or only touched upon in passing: the humour. These images makes us chuckle if not downright laugh. To the modern audiences these images are first and foremost entertaining despite their more complex meanings, which leads to our introductory example to its wide dissemination over the internet. But is it just that? The perspective of a modern viewer disconnected from the serious meanings the visual imagery had for its medieval audience?

I cannot help but think that the medieval audience, whether they also understood the underlying meaning or not, might have initially reacted with a chuckle as well. The joking aspect in these images have been mentioned both in regards to the Massa Maritima Mural as well as for the Phallus tree in the Roman de la Rose.2 Similar obscene humour can also be observed elsewhere as for example in
Fig. 3 Detail, Très Riches Heures, 9v,
Musée Condé.
the exposed buttock of a peasant in the later
Très Riches Heures (Fig. 3) or in the Miller's Tale of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. When we think about the complex implications of such imagery we thus also need to consider the humorous aspect. Based on the assumption that medieval viewers would have reacted with amusement, would not the artist himself been aware of this? This throws up further questions as to how visual jokes worked and were used as communicative tool. After all, serious content and jokes do not exclude one another. We might just think of contemporary comedians who often address serious social and political issues, nevertheless humour is their means of transporting these ideas. Would it be possible to consider humour in visual material in a similar way, as essential part of transporting an intended meaning to its audience? A joke quite often addresses that which is a taboo and deals with what cannot be spoken in seriousness. Like the fool in  Shakespearean plays, the joke can tell the audience what no one else will say, unless they are willing to face social sanctions. So it appears to me that this side of humorous imagery needs to be analysed in more detail, in order to fully understand what the visual material communicated to the audience, both the funny and the serious side.

Yet, we must not forget that humour changes. Not everything we might consider funny would have been received in the same way by a medieval audience. Our own humour can therefore not be reliable guide to find medieval jokes, but needs to be evaluated on the background of medieval material. However, the same is also true the other way around, what the medieval eye might have discovered with laughter might create discomfort in the modern viewer. I have come across this problem recently in my own research when considering how humour might have also been a tool in negotiating Self-identity in the face of the Other. Images of violence, of obscenity and even of being the victim of severe undeserved punishment keep appearing within the context of the depiction of non-Christian. Their place in a discourse of the Other is undisputed and they tend to make us uncomfortable as they are signs of intolerance and of prejudice that we (hopefully) have overcome. Yet, I started wondering whether our discomfort might sometimes be a way of recognising that some of these images might have been considered to be funny by their medieval audience. After all, these images address important social anxieties in the face of an experience of alterity. What role did the joke play in these images and might they sometimes enable the viewer to laugh into the face of the Other? I have not come to conclusions regarding this issue so far, but it did make me consider that we might need to reconsider the importance that humour might have played in many visual materials.


1 See among others Ferzoco, George, The Massa Marittima Mural, (Florence: Regional Council of Tuscany Central Communication Unit, 2004); Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 1-27; Mattelaer, Johan J., "The Phallus Tree: A Medieval and Renaissance Phenomenon', Journal of Sexual Medicine 7:2 (2010), 846-51.
Smith, Matthew Ryan. "Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural." Shift 2 (2009), 5; Camille, Michael, Image on the Edge. The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992) 147-149.


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Happy New Year from Beyond Borders!

Happy New Year Beyond Borders Readers! It has been an eventful year for Beyond Borders and we are thrilled to have had you all as readers, guest bloggers, and friends as we continued our academic explorations and discussions.  In 2013 we reached our one year anniversary, expanded our readership, and had many wonderful guest bloggers. We hope to start 2014 with the same vigour and have decided to make a few changes which will in turn lead to more great posts.

Some of you may have noticed that in the past few months we have been posting every other week instead of every week. This will be a permanent change for the blog which will coincide with a more academic calendar to better suit all those working around a school schedule. We will be featuring more posts involving trending topics in the field in hopes of creating a discourse with other publications and readers.  The Beyond Borders Team will also be working on round table posts, which will work much like a mini-series featuring a post from each of us on the same subject matter. And of course, we welcome our fellow academics to contact us if interested in guest blogging (
Happy New Year and Happy Blogging!

Sincerest Wishes,

The Beyond Borders Team

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Creating Narratives: Thoughts on the New Life of Disassembled Manuscripts

In a recent reading of Elaine Treharne’s blog Text Technologies, I am particularly drawn to comment upon her two most recent posts 'The Broken Book I: Getty Exhibition “Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister”' and 'The Broken Book II: From a Book of Hours to a Book of Bits,' which considers the implications of the dismantled the book and the dissemination of its pages. In these two posts Treharne aptly discusses the decontextualised nature of a deconstructed book, which, per my understanding of her posts, not only disregards the intended functionality of the folios, but also defiles the book as an object via the dispersal of its contents.

At this juncture, I shall take the opportunity to clarify that I concur with Treharne’s arguments and support her cause to maintain the integrity of manuscripts. However these posts have sparked an alternate line of inquiry for me, which I deem should be examined with regard to the fact that manuscripts are currently, and have been at certain points in history, altered or completely deconstructed for one reason or another. Hence, I posit that we as academics consider what new meaning, if any, the disseminated part of a manuscript embodies vis-à-vis its meaning in book form.

Let us consider a hypothetical example of a folio removed from a medieval Turkish manuscript on the practice of medicine. This illuminated folio, along with many others, is now sold in market places where tourists and other interested buyers congregate to purchase a piece of history to transport home. Envision the manuscript, a bound object comprised of pages that were intentionally created to fulfill a certain purpose. These pages are filled with text and image that were once used to impart knowledge to both established and aspiring physicians, but is now dismantled in order to be sold to laymen who may or may not be cognisant of the folio’s original intended purpose. Is it symbolic, insofar that it acts as representation of a unit of meaning for the new owner’s life experiences? Do these pages convey a completely new narrative, or are they now a disjointed aspect of a chronicle that is now lost? Finally, has the folio lost its ‘bookishness’?

In keeping with the example of the pages from the Turkish medical treatise, it may be suggested that in  the possession of a physician, these pages may be a textual and pictorial embodiment of a vocation that existed long before his lifetime, but at the same moment speaks of his occupation today. Within this context, the now disembodied elements of the book are redefined. They are no longer a manner in which to teach about medicine, but are now a vehicle that link time and space, insofar that these folios represent the history of the owner’s occupation through the lens of another culture at a different point in time. This representation does not alienate the physician from his place within medicine today, but instead it intertwines his practice with those of the past. This creates a new narrative for the physician about his own experiences as a doctor in light of the experiences of the medical practitioners of the past who now exist within the realm of historical narratives. With this in mind, the folios may then symbolise medical practice and perpetuate the concept of a time continuum of occupational community for the new owner. 

The example provided is meant to engender a thought process that considers the potential for new meaning. It cannot speak for each folio from a disassembled book, and in an alternate scenario, the folio may be further removed from its original intended function, but an ontological change may still occur. Even though the book that once held these pages together has now lost its primary functionality, its contents may acquire a new purpose. I will not suggest that this new purpose is more important than the book’s original intended function, nor that the act of defiling a book is in anyway appropriate. I will suggest, however, that a book that has had its pages removed from its bindings does not indicate its death, but instead it calls for a reconsideration of the ontological state of its contents. But, does this mean that the pages themselves have lost their essence of being part of a book? I would initially suggest that a page that has been physically removed from its original form cannot be stripped of its origins. However, I shall leave this for  further discussion. 


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Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Appropriation of the Cosmati and Cosmatesque

The Roman Medieval Cosmati works of the tenth to the thirteenth century may have been an innovation in church ornamentation for the period, but the material and content presented in the patterns are appropriated from years past. The Roman craftsmen repurposed ancient stones like porphyry, serpentine, and Carrera marble from ruined sites, using the stones in the laying of floors at Christian houses of worship. The patterns in the floors, though laden with Christian symbolism, were also based upon Classical philosophies involving the Platonic and Aristotelian elements and the cosmos. In this post, I will discuss the significance of appropriated material and concepts in Medieval Cosmati pavements, and then consider the Victorian revival of the Cosmatesque in the United Kingdom.

The spolia used in Medieval Roman pavements were not transported  from afar-- the stones were taken from ruined Classical sites. For the Classical construction to be possible, the stones travelled a great distance, including porphyry from modern-day Egypt. Egyptian porphyry was used in  pagan houses of worship, and later re-purposed in locations like Santi Quattro Coronati (4th century pagan origins, 6th century Christian conversion, 12th century completion), and at the height of Cosmati creation, moved as far away as London in the laying of the Westminster pavement (13th century completion).[1] Serpentine is found mostly in mainland Greece, linking the famous baldachin of St. Peter’s the home of Classical philosophy. This transaction of materials makes the interchange of ideologies more plausible. The following images and analyses serve as examples of exchange of material and cultural goods.

Cosmati Pavement in the San Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

St. Silvestro Chapel at Santi Quattro Coronati (SQC), Rome: SQC is home to two Cosmati pavements: one within the main basilica, the other within the St. Silvestro Chapel. The pavement in the St. Silvestro Chapel predates that of the main basilica and has a several symbolic features placed within the spolia stones. The prominent shape in this pattern is the quincunx (one form surrounded by four so that the four make the corners of a square). The three here could represent the Trinity, which is alluded to by the white cross in the quincunx nearest the entrance. The white marble may represent peace or purity, but perhaps it is more likely that it represents Christ at the centre of the universe, as suggested by the quincunx at the Westminster pavement. The abundant use of porphyry is perhaps a reference to royalty, as in the divine royalty of Christ, or the royalty of Constantine who is portrayed in the chapel’s famous mosaic.[2]

Westminster Abbey Cosmati Pavement
Westminster Abbey, London: As mentioned in the SQC analysis, the quincunx is often thought to be a representation of the universe. This is due an inscription that once was inset around the Westminster pavement describing it as “the eternal pattern of the universe.”[3] This inscription is the only one of its kind, making the Westminster pavement the only labelled Cosmati work. Scholars like Lindy Grant, Richard Mortimer, and Richard Foster have greatly elaborated on pattern, but to sum up their studies, the quincunx represents the four Platonic elements in the exterior orbs, and the Aristotelian fifth element, aether, in the centre. These elements were considered constants in universe. As science and religion often overlapped in the Middle Ages, the quincunx and the elements that make up the universe also had a religious interpretation, one in which God replaced aether and the four elements would be the four Evangelists. In the case of SQC, perhaps the four arms represent the Four Crowned Martyrs.

Large quincunx roundel of the Sistine Chapel Cosmati pavement

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City: Like the pavements of SQC and Westminster, the Sistine Chapel pavement features a quincunx. The pavement seen here is under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, but do note that there is another pavement in the Stanza della Signatura which features the cross keys of St. Peter. This pavement is significant as it sits under the image of God creating Adam, which is consistent with the cosmological reference made by the Westminster inscription. Additionally, the nine rings that make up the roundels of the larger quincunx (seen above) are perhaps another reference to the heavens, particularly the nine levels of Purgatory so famously written about by Dante.
This theory needs further investigation on my part, but considering the nine layers and Dante’s Purgatorio certainly makes an intriguing query. 

Monreale Cathedral, Sicily: Lastly I would like to examine the pavement at the Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. Although not part of Rome, Sicily and Naples were part of the Holy See.[4] This connection with Rome made for many shared cultural practices, but the lifestyle in the south was different from that of Rome as Sicily was influenced by Muslim culture until the Normans conquered in 1072, which led to the structure we see today.[5] The original worship centre of Monreale was a small church. The structure as it can be seen today was built by King William II in the early twelfth century (circa 1174). The Roman quincunx is present at Monreale, but the Islamic muqarna has become the more featured geometric form. In many eastern cultures, the eight-pointed star represents protection, spiritual enlightenment, resurrection, rebirth, infinity and abundance.[6] In Islam there are seven hells and eight paradises, perhaps making the muqarna a symbol of paradise.[7] Christianity uses the number eight in art and design because after the flooding of the world and Noah’s ark, eight people were saved in this “mass baptism,” thus resulting in eight-sided baptisteries and churches.[8] As discussed in former posts, the number 8 is also infinity when turned upon its side.

 What can be concluded from the medieval Cosmati works is that both material and content are spolia. The same can be said for Victorian adaptation of Cosmati-style pavements known as the Cosmatesque. One of the most highly-recognized Victorian Cosmatesque pavements is that of Durham Cathedral. The material of the choir and high altar pavements are predominately sandstone, but the pattern includes a multitude of geometric forms borrowed from pavements created before its time. The pavement was laid by Sir Gilbert Scott in 1870 during a renovation of the cathedral, which also included alterations to the towers, foundation, and smaller damages to the structure.

Cosmati works have long been a favourite of mine for their intricate patterns and bold colours, but what is truly incredible is the long history of exchange of materials, content, and craft of the pavements. The exchange of material is evidence of long-standing economic agreement between a multitude of cultures, but the patterns of the pavement express a cultural exchange. The geometric symbolism is a tradition of religious and scientific understanding passed down from ancient times, to medieval scholars and in turn, craftsman, and later adapted by Victorian patrons in their great refurbishment. The Westminster inscription reveals that the quincunx pattern is best called the "eternal pattern of the universe," but the process of creating these pavements reveals a pattern of cultural exchange. 
View of the Victorian Cosmatesque Pavement


[2] Mitchell, John. "St. Silvester and Constantine at the SS. Quattro Coronati." In Federico II E L'arte Del Duecento Italiano, Atti Della III Settimana Di Studi Di Storia Dell' Arte Medievale Dell 'Universita Di Roma, 15-32. Vol. II. Galatina, 1980.; Barelli, Lia. "Brief History of the Monastery Complex of Ss. Quattro Coronati in Roma." Monastero Dei Ss.Quattro Coronati. 1999.

[3] Richard Foster, Patterns of Though: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey (London: Butler and Tanner, 1991), pg. 3.
[4] Mitchell, John. "St. Silvester and Constantine at the SS. Quattro Coronati." In Federico II E L'arte Del Duecento Italiano, Atti Della III Settimana Di Studi Di Storia Dell' Arte Medievale Dell 'Universita Di Roma, 15-32. Vol. II. Galatina, 1980.
[5]Krönig, Wolfgang. The Cathedral of Monreale and Norman Architecture in Sicily. 15. Palermo: S.F. Flaccovio, 1965.
[6] Number Symbolism 8—Britannica Online Encyclopedia. “Encyclopedia-Britannica Online”. Web. <>
[7] Ibid.
[8] Joost-Gaugier, Christine L. Measuring Heaven. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2006. 167-168.  Print.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Capsula, Capsella, and Insular House-shaped Shrines

In this post I would like to introduce the topic of Insular house-shaped shrines. These small containers, often regarded as reliquaries, have long puzzled art historians and archaeologists alike. Indeed, house-shaped shrines are wonderful examples of the complexity of studying early medieval art, especially in the British Isles and Ireland, as many of the textual sources are fragmentary, as are many of the shrines themselves. In this post I will introduce the issues surround the study of these enigmatic artefacts by focusing on the Monymusk shrine and the works of David Caldwell, Erika von Erhadt-Siebold, and Neil O’Donoghue.
Side of the Monymusk Reliquary

One of the earliest ascribed functions of house-shaped shrines was that of a reliquary. The Monymusk shrine was attributed the status of the Breccbennach of St Columba by Joseph Anderson in 1880.[1] The Breccbennach, or ‘blessed shrine’ as Anderson understood the term, was a reliquary associated with St Columba and the Monastery of Arbroath.[2] The Breccbennach was reportedly carried into battle at Bannockburn in 1314.[3] In 2001, Caldwell questioned Anderson’s original interpretation on three fronts. Firstly, Caldwell noted that there are no surviving references to the shape or decoration of the Breccbennach and thus it cannot be known if the Monymusk shrine is indeed the vexilla referred to in the texts. Indeed, Isidore of Seville noted in his Etymologiae that the term vexillum was primarily a military term denoting a banner or ‘battle-sign, having its name drawn from the diminutive of ‘sail’ (velum), as if it were velxillum’.[4] Furthermore, the Latin hymn Vexilla regis prodeunt written by Venantius Fortunatus related the term vexilla to the Cross, ‘Vexilla Regis prodeunt/Fulget Crucis mysterium,/quo carne carnis conditor,/suspensus est patibulo’.[5] Secondly, Monymusk House, where the shrine was found, only dates to the sixteenth-century. Tied with this issue, the estate of Monymusk has changed ownership since the original hereditary keepers of the Breccbennach were granted the shrine.[6] Thirdly, the nearby Priory of Monymusk, a successor of a previous house, was founded in the twelfth century and offers a more local origin for the shrine separate from the tradition of St Columba.[7] When Duns referred to house-shaped shrines as reliquaries in the 1880s, he did so due to the Breccbennach status of the Monymusk shrine.[8]  
Inside the Monymusk Reliquary

Scholarship by both Conway and Blindheim continued linking house-shrines to reliquaries through Monymusk. While Blindheim was primarily concerned with establishing the Insular connections of the continental house-shrines, Conway sought to demonstrate the connection between Insular house-shaped shrines and continental purse-shaped reliquaries. However, both studies assumed that the Monymusk shrine was indeed a reliquary and used this as a cornerstone of their arguments.[9] As such, subsequent interpretations of house-shaped shrines as reliquaries, which are predicated on the reliquary status of the Monymusk shrine, must be called into question.

Further attempts to determine the function of house-shaped shrines through identifying textual references to their use in the Lives of the Irish Saints noted that the Irish term menistir could designate either a portable reliquary or Eucharistic vessel; however, the term lacked a detailed description of what a menistir may have looked like.[10] Additionally, Erika von Erhadt-Siebold’s work on the fifty-fifth riddle of Aldhelm’s (c. 639-709) Enigmata, demonstrated that the subject of the riddle, the chrismal, could be seen as a description of house-shrines,[11]

Alma domus veneror divino munere plena,
Valvas sed nullus reserat nee limina pandit,
Culmina ni fuerint aulis sublata quaternis,
Et licet exterius rutilent de corpore gemmae,
Aurea dum fulvis flavescit bulla metallis,
Sed tamen uberius ditantur viscera crassa
Intus, qua species flagrat pulcherrima Christi:
Candida sanctarum sic floret gloria rerum,
Nec trabis in templo, surgunt nee tecta columnis.[12]

Von Erhardt-Siebold dissected the Latin of Aldhelm’s riddle Chrismal sive Chrismarium, in particular the section which she believed described opening chrismals. Von Erhardt-Siebold went on to state, ‘aulae are simply the corners of the chest and quaternus stands for quarter…thus the roof (or roofs—since the lid is composed of two principle parts) is lifted from the four corners’.[13] Indeed, Aldhelm further describes the decoration of the shine as being made of precious materials, along with the lack of obvious openings. As such, Aldhelm is describing a container which glistens and opens from the top, just like the Monymusk shrine. Aldhelm’s description is potentially the only reference to what a house-shaped shrine may have looked like.
Side view of the shrine showing
the various components
of its construction.

While the chrismal was often used to carry the Eucharist, von Erhadt-Siebold noted that the terminology was highly fluid in the early medieval period indicating that a chrismal could be used to carry oil, the Eucharist, dust from a saint’s grave, or even acting as a relic in its own right.[14] Indeed, the title of the riddle, Chrismal sive Chrismarium, denotes a level of fluidity by referencing two possible terms. Therefore, possibly the most explicit reference to the form and decoration of a chrismal represents a complex network of co-meaning as the use of sive implies that Aldhelm knew the subject of his riddle would be known by multiple names and functions. Indeed, Bishop Heraldus of Tours mentioned the practice of carrying oil and the Eucharist in the chrismal, ‘Ut presbyteri chrisma, oleum, et Eucharistiam semper habeant, ut parati inveniantur’.[15]

Drawing on these Eucharistic connections, O’Donoghue critiqued the previously held interpretations of house-shaped shrines as reliquaries and instead argued that references to chrismal in early medieval texts noted containers commissioned exclusively for chrism and the Eucharist, not relics.[16] O’Donoghue cited the theological and practical importance of the Eucharist in The Pontifical of Egbert, Missale Francorum, and the Sacramentatium Gelasianum’s blessings of the chrismal during the Praefatio Crismalis.[17] O’Donogue highlighted the prayers’ emphasis on Christ as seen in his translated portion of the prayer from the Pontifical of Egbert, ‘Omnipotens Deus, trinitas insepa-/rabilis, minibus nostris opem tue/benedictionis infunde, ut, per nostram/benedictionem, hoc vasculum sanctificetur, et corporis Christi novum/sepulchrum Spiritus Sancti gratia perficiatur’.[18] While the text does refer to the body of Christ (corporis Christi), in his interpretation, O’Donoghue does not note the varying application of the term chrismal nor the use of the term capsula and capsella in nonliturgical sources. In Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, he describes how the missionary Germanus uses of a small bag or box, worn around his neck, to cure a girl’s blindness, ‘adherentem lateri suo capsulam cum sanctorum reliquiis collo auulsam manibus conprehendit, eamque in conspectus omnium puaella oculis adplicuit’.[19] The same term is used when the abbess Æthelhild begged Queen Osthryth for some of St Oswald’s relic soil, and thereupon wrapped it in cloth and secured it in a small box, ‘et accipiens inligatum panno condidit in capsella’.[20] These are the snipits we must ruminate over in order to uncover the possible functions of house-shaped shrines.

Through examining Aldhelm's riddle it becomes apparent that objects similar to the Monymusk shrine, ones which possess glistening metallic bosses and 'roofs' which open from the top, were related to the term chrismal at least by the tenth century. Unfortunately, the term chrismal is not altogether clear and many of the Insular house-shaped shrines were created possibly centuries earlier. While there is a Eucharistic connection inherent to the term chrismal, when examining nonliturgical sources house-shaped shrines functionality is again problematised as terms such as capsella and capsula are used to describe small caskets. What we can be sure of is that Insular house-shaped shrines possess similar constructional elements, namely the same means of opening, overall shape in their trapezoidal roofs, and finally in suspension straps which would have allowed them to be hung or worn, possibly around the neck as Bede reports. Sadly I do not have a simple conclusion for this post, as I am presently researching the material, construction, and the possible references to house-shaped shrines as part of my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. Perhaps in a year or two I may have a clearer idea of what these enigmatic caskets contained but for now it appears the Aldhelm's riddle will have to remain just that.


Figures 1 and 2- NMS

Figure 3 - Creative Commons, submitted by Nachosan to Wikipedia

[1] Anderson, Joseph. "Notice of an Ancient Celtic Reliquary Exhibited to the Society by Sir Archibald Grant, Bart., of Monymusk." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 14 (1879-80): 431-35.
[2] ‘To determine that the Breccbennach must have been similar to the Cathach because they were both Celtic vexilla equally fails to convince. Anderson’s explanation of the meaning of the word Breccbennach—‘the blessed one’—is rejected by Gaelic scholars who, as noted above, prefer ‘the speckled, peaked one’. This later description might cover a shrine like the Monymusk Reliquary, but is not particular enough to exclude its application to other classes of objects, including flags.’ Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[3] Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[4] Isidore of Seville Book XVII, iii, 5. Isidore. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Trans. Stephen A. Barney. Cambridge: Cambridge UP: 361.
[5]The banner of the Kings comes forth/Now shines forth the Mystery of the Cross/Where the Creator of the Flesh, is flesh/who was hanged on the gallows’. Venantius Fortunatus. Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi. Ed. Clemens Blume and Guido Dreves. Leipzig: O.R. Reisland, 1907 : 74;Edwards, Jennifer. "Their Cross to Bear: Controversy and the Relic of the True Cross in Poitiers." Essays in Medieval Studies 24 (2007): 69.
[6] Caldwell, David. "The Monymusk Reliquary: The Breccbennach of St Columba?" Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 131 (2001): 278.
[7] Stuart, John. Sculptured Stones of Scotland. Aberdeen: Bennett, 1867: 75-6;
[8] Duns, D. "Notice of an Ancient Celtic Reliquary Ornamented with Interlaced Work." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 14 (1879-80): 286-7.
[9] Conway, William. "Portable Reliquaries of the Early Medieval Period." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 31 (1918-9): 235-8; Blindheim, Martin. "A House-Shaped Irish-Scots Reliquary in Bologna, and Its Place Among the Other Reliquaries." Acta Achaeologica 55 (1984): 1-53.
[10] Plummer, Charles. Bethada Náem NÉrenn; Lives of Irish Saints. Oxford: Clarendon, 1922: 356.
[11] ‘I have learned to appreciate the riddle in all its details for I have found portable Celtic reliquaries made in the form of a house…and correspond exactly to Aldhelm’s description.’ Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 278.
[12] Translation by Lapidge and Rosier, ‘I am venerated as a holy house, filled with a divine gift. But no-one unlocks my portals nor throws open my doors unless the roof is removed from my four chambers. And although there are gleaming jewels on the outside of my body and a golden boss glistens with its burnished metalwork, yet my teeming inwards are more richly endowed within, where the beauteous splendour of Christ shimmers: thus does the brilliant glory of these holy things bloom! in this church the (vaults of the) roof do not spring from beams or columns.’ Aldhelmus. Aldhelm: The Poetic Works. Trans. Michael Lapidge. Woodbridge: Brewer, 2009: 81; Ehwald, Rudolf, ed. Aldhelmi Opera. Berolini: Apvd Weidmannos, 1919: 122.
[13] Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 278.
[14] Von Erhadt-Siebold cites the Vita S. Comgalli, Vita S. Aridii, Acta de S. Columba de Tyre da Glass, Vita Altera S. Aredii, and Vita S. Germani as examples for the myriad of functions displayed by chrismals and chrismariums. Von Erhadt-Siebold, Erika. "Aldhelm’s Chrismal." Speculum 3 (1935): 277; 94. Snoek, G. J. C. Medieval Piety from Relics to the Eucharist: A Process of Mutual Interaction. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995: 93-4; Cabrol, Fernand, and Henri Leclercq. Dictionnaire D'archéologie Chrétienne Et De Liturgie,. Vol. III. Paris: Letouzey Et Ané, 1913: 1478-81.
[15] ‘The priests shall always carry chrism oil and the Eucharist, so that they may be found ready’ Heraldus of Tours. Capitula Heradi, Archiepiscopi Turonensis. Ed. J. P. Minge. Vol. 121. Paris: Turnhout, 1852. Patrologia Latina. Web. 10 July 2013. <>.
[16] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-91.
[17] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-5.
[18] O'Donoghue, Neil. "Insular and House-Shaped Shrines in the Early Middle Ages." Insular & Anglo-Saxon Art and Thought in the Early Medieval Period. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Princeton: Index of Christian Art, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University, 2011: 84-5.
Bede. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969: 58.
[20] Bede. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon, 1969: 248.