Thursday, 13 December 2012

On Ontology and the Medieval Manuscript

During this time of year I always evaluate my library, or its beginnings at least. I labouriously make a list of the books I have yet to obtain and yet another list of the books that I most likely will never have the privilege of acquiring. This year, in addition to my bibliographical wishes, I began to think about how scholars approach the evaluation process of a medieval manuscript. More importantly, a question arose that I had yet to consider: how should we as academics begin to understand what certain manuscripts might have meant during the medieval time period? I cannot claim to have the definitive answer to such a distinctly difficult query; however, I will suggest that an ontological evaluation of various manuscripts may begin to shed light upon a probable answer.

The medieval manuscript is a multivalent object. It embodies many attributes such as text, without which many histories may have been lost due to the evolving nature of orality, and a visual programme that is reminiscent of the artistic developments during its time of creation. Some examples of the uses of manuscripts were to mirror aspects of patron ideals, act as a vade mecum, represent regional socio-political and cultural currents and serve as a container for closely guarded magical formulae. With such a large repertoire of functional aspects, one must question the amount of ‘vitality’ some medieval manuscripts were thought to have held. According to Richard Kieckhefer’s monograph, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century, a manuscript (specifically a book of magic) not only contained rites, but also shared the numinous qualities of the rites with which it was inscribed.[1] Hence, upon the destruction of a necromantic, or demonic, manuscript ‘[t]he burning thus served as an exorcism; the very pages seemed quite literally infected by demons, who needed to be banished.’[2] Kieckhefer’s account of the supernatural power that the pages of a necromantic manuscript were thought to hold leads us to consider aspects of the manuscript culture during the Middle Ages and their theoretical underpinnings with respect to the ontological debate.

In Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, ontological realism is described as a thesis that is about the being of objects ‘whether or not we exist to represent them.’[3] Ontological realism serves as an explanation of the metaphysical position that manuscripts may have held. Moreover, the perspective of particular interest is the idea that the ‘being’ of an object is unshackled from human intervention, which is indicative of the potential efficacy a manuscript's components may contain as well as the manuscript's aptitude as an autonomous object. It supposes that although a human hand created a manuscript, the book holds the capacity to evolve due to the very essence of the contents it was created to house.

In consideration of this theory, the different components within a manuscript (text, illuminations, marginalia, etcetera) may in turn be independent of each other, yet serve a purpose of providing an understanding of the whole. For example, many manuscripts that were produced during the Middle Ages were for liturgical purposes and were thought to contain the Word, or essence, of God. Oftentimes, the illuminations within these books were used to underscore the content of the text, yet at the same time embellish known aspects of the religious oral culture. Irrespective of the creator’s original intention for the illumination, the fact that it was housed within an object that embodied the 'essence' of God redefined its functionality. The illuminations, along with the Word of God, became a representation of God on earth. Thus, it may be suggested that any illumination within the manuscript mirrored the intention of God instead of man. If this suggestion were to be true, what then can be said about manuscripts that are liturgical, or devotional (such as a book of hours), but contain aspects that may not have been considered godly?

The medieval manuscript, and its components, has been meticulously considered by academics. However, the manuscript as an embodiment of being should continuously be analysed with regard to how its autonomous elements have the propensity to redefine the creator's intention. Such a shift over time may also suggest a break from the hierarchical attributes assigned to a creation by its creator. 


[1] R. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, Penn State University Press (1997), 4.
[2] Ibid, 5.
[3] Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2011), 18, accessed March 24, 2012,

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Notre-Dame de Chartres: A Cosmological Reading

Notre-Dame de Chartres: A Cosmological Reading

Sacred imagery within a church is meant to serve as the bible for the illiterate, illustrating not only religious iconography, but the Medieval cosmological opinion. These depictions were universally understood in both the scholarly and non-academic communities. This analysis is a cosmological discussion on the characteristics of the Notre-Dame de Chartres West Rose window and Labyrinth, allowing for both a cultural and scientific explanation of each feature.

The West rose window depicts the second coming of Christ, with Christ the judge sitting in the centre of a quatrefoil or cross with His five bleeding wounds. Christ is encircled by three rings of twelve. Each of the encircling rings build upon the story of the second coming. The inner ring, in what Chartres historian Malcolm Miller calls the ‘tips’ of the elliptical forms, depicts ‘eight angels placed in pairs between the four apocalyptic animals, representing the four evangelists,’ conveniently placed in the four cardinal directions.[1] The larger circles within the ellipses are Christ’s twelve apostles who are helping Christ judge of the twelve tribes.[2] The outer most ring consist of several illustrations, including angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s Passion, angels blowing trumpets to announce Judgement Day, and six scenes of resurrected souls waiting to be judged.[3] The numerological qualities of the window enhance the iconographic illustrations put in place by the Chartres artists. The numbers in the pattern have adopted Christian meaning through the religious imagery displayed in each of the ‘petals’ of the rose, but cosmological interpretation must also be deliberated, especially when considering the numbers twelve and five. The numbers twelve and five are used to allude to the twelve apostles and Christ’s five wounds. The number twelve is representative of the months of the year, measured in astrological observations. Five is relatable to Aristotle’s five elements, including the impermeable aether. Considering the wounds of Christ and the elements as one in same is rather intriguing, perhaps making Christ the human representation of the world with a range of features (or elements) making Him a vision of perfection and balance.

Of the geometric forms, one of the most domineering shapes of the rose window is the star. This is vital because it is physical evidence of shared cosmological depiction between East and West, as the star is a common shape at locations like Dome of the Rock.[4] The pentacle is a commonly used star figure, representing ‘the Pythagorean symbol of healing, the Crucifixion, and Man, as drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.’[6] Regardless of the number of points on the star, the star is used a symbol of guidance in rose window design.[7] The star represents a beacon of light in the night sky, as was the case in the journey of the Magi in the story of Christ’s birth. The guidance of the stars was also essential in navigation in these early eras, thus representing the guiding of the heavens through stormy seas. The West rose window is conveniently placed over the floor labyrinth. The light from the star of the window may also be intended to light the visitor’s way through the labyrinth, which represents the journey of life. 

The labyrinth, like the window, also allows for multiple interpretations. The interpretation of the journey of life is the most prominent of the options, embracing the Christian journey to salvation. This idea is supported by the title of the pattern, called ‘la lieue’ or the ‘league,’ alluding to the length of the path.[5] The designation ‘the league’ allows for further cosmological meaning, referring to the path or orbit of a planet. Being that the labyrinth takes more of an elliptical shape verses a circular also hints to the idea of the actual elliptical travel of the planets.[6]  This quality makes the labyrinth more cosmological although it maintains its Christian elucidations.[7] The Chartres pattern represents the vernal equinox that predicts the date of Easter.[8] In celebration of the resurrection, early Christians would dance around the pattern.[9] They believed that Christ, before returning to earth, journeyed through the labyrinth to purgatory and hell.[10] Easter, calculated through astronomical events, again binds together the studies of science and religion. Additional scientific meaning is ascribed to the pattern when connecting the use of circles to Pythagorean teachings on the harmony of cosmological spheres.[11]

The Notre-Dame de Chartres’ rose windows and labyrinth represent the French dedication to Christianity and the journey to finding salvation. Their path was lit by the West rose window, featuring Christ as judge. Each visitor is watched as they face the twists and turns of the labyrinth that lies just beyond the gaze of Christ. The religious interpretation of these architectural features is complimented with the cosmological ideals of the era, tying together the natural occurrences of the earth to the power of God. The intertwining of religion and science allowed for a harmonious rule of the church and continuation of scientific inquiry in the thirteenth century. The great piety of the time perhaps overshadows any cosmological intent in the design, but what should be questioned is whether or not it was possible that the common man made scientific inferences upon his visit to the church. If these architectural features are the books of the illiterate, what exactly was the medieval man reading in his viewing of the rose window and labyrinth? As a 21st century viewer, I am open to both religious and scientific intentions, but what was envisioned by the Chartres artists and what was viewed by medieval visitors remains in question.


[1] Miller, 92.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. Image: West Rose Window, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, accessed July 26, 2012,
[4] Oleg Grabar, The Dome of the Rock (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pg. 76. Image: Creswell’s Dome of the Rock floor plan. West Rose Window picture provided by: West Rose Window, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, accessed July 26, 2012, Geometric pattern added by the author. Do note that the geometric forms of the Chartres image are not fully accurate due to the angle of the photograph.
[5] Hermann Kern, Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5.000 Years (New York: Prestel, 2000), pg. 153.
[6] This idea was suggested in the Classical Greek era, but not confirmed until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Brahe and Kepler. See Aughton, 85.
[7] Kern, 110.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. See also Kern, 146.
[11] Ibid. Images: Left, Chartres Labyrinth, 2012, Chartres Cathedral, World Heritage, Chartres, Right: Kern, 

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Primer Lapidario as window to the world?

            A couple of weeks ago I touched upon the topic of maps and the representation of the monstrous and the other within these visual objects. During my dissertation I came across an object that I would like to introduce today, and, in my opinion, is related to the corpus of maps, which thus far far has received little scholarly attention. The object I am referring to is the Primer Lapidario of Alfonso X. The manuscript is one of the many objects produced by the Alfonsine scriptorium for El Sabio, the Wise. The text, based on Arab originals, informs its audience of a great variety of gems, their location, their properties, their relation to the zodiacs, as well as informations on the constellations and their origin. These texts on the 118 leaves of parchment within the unfinished manuscript are accompanied by a total of 802 miniatures with additional drolleries. These illuminations consist of illustrated initials, drolleries and images of the zodiac signs. The former especially caught my attention These initials have in common that they are all concerned with the the mining of the gems described in the text. Some are shown to be found in the sea, others under the earth or in wells. Within this great variety of imagery, however, one specific type of scene is significantly dominant. This type always follows a specific theme: one figure is shown as the wise man, ordering another, the worker. The relationship between these two figures, to me, appears to be one of dominance and subjugation. The specific character of these figures, however, changes depending on the region where the stone is found. They mirror the concepts and ideas the audience associated with the respective locale.

             Several of the precious gems described can be found in the 'tierras de Arabia'. In these cases the initials frequently show figures wearing turbans and bears, thereby marking them as eastern, or rather as Muslim. In the majority of the images both the scholar and the worker are shown with these markers of Islam, however certain exceptions are striking. For example, in the case of Libya not two Muslims are shown, but a turban-wearing wise man and a worker that might very well be understood as a Christian figure. The image thereby creates Libya as land of Muslim dominance over Christians, an especially unsettling image for a medieval Spanish audience, considering their history and their ongoing battles with Muslims. Though an easily overlooked nuance, to me it seems rather plausible to suspect an ideological foundation beneath it.

             This seems all the more apparent when the case of the Argent vivo is considered in relation. This stone, according to the text, can be found in the areas of 'la tierra á que llaman Adracegen, et en la de Sennen, et en la de Espanna.' The illuminated initial appears to strongly reflect not only the text, but also the audience's identity. It depicts the wise man as figure that judging from his clothing refers to images of Christ and the Apostles rather than to contemporary Christian clothing (which in great detail can also be observed in the illuminated manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria). The worker here is almost naked, only a white loin cloth covers his body, while  his turban identifies him as a Muslim. The relationship of the figures clearly communicates the Christian dominance in the image. An aspect that cannot be considered a coincidence considering the Iberian origin of the manuscript.

              So, I wonder what can we make of this besides suspecting an underlying self-affirmative aspect in the manuscript that supports the Christian position in the world? Apart from showing the gems and how they are obtained, the illuminations show the land of their origin, though of course in a very fragmented way. Within these lands the mentioned position of the depicted figures in the world is clearly noticeable. The initial's similarity to maps seem to me quite astounding and I would suggest that these illuminated initials, in a way, become almost a kind of map in their own accord. Images that allow the audience to gaze to foreign territories and their riches, and not without visually commenting on the other that inhabits these regions. I think, therefore objects like the Primer Lapidario need to be considered along side other material that so far have not been brought into connection with these manuscripts of gems, such as the mappa mundi and the illuminated travel accounts. 


Thursday, 11 October 2012

Medieval, the NMS, and Nationalism

A colleague of mine, Tasha Gefreh, recently gave a seminar on ‘Brave-Art: Concepts of Medievalism and Artefacts’ for Edinburgh University’s Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society. Her talk explored the historic…er…issues of Disney’s Brave, treating on the issues of historical versus imagined time, academic responsibility, nationalism, and the inspiring if often misleading nature of popular conceptions of “medieval”. Tasha explored this connection between Pixar and the National Museum of Scotland, noting that the studio sent artists in 2006 and 2007 to see the museum and its artefacts. At one point, she showed one still from the movie that struck me. While arresting in its dramatic composition, Tasha drew our attention to a Pictish symbol, reminiscent of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, shown in the bottom right as part of the architectural structure of a building. This use of Pictishness and of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone is not anything new for the NMS and the use of the imagined medieval has been utilised by the NMS earlier than Brave as seen at during its reopening and its earlier acquisition of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone. 

With the opening of the NMS on St. Andrew’s Day 1998, the birth of the museum coincided with the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament a year later.1 While David Clarke, Head of Exhibitions for the NMS attempted to ‘dissuade those who are determined to find endorsement of their own sense of national identity’ he was unsuccessful as Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, wrote just two years later that he hopes ‘these two key institutions [Scottish Parliament and NMS] will help to shape both the cultural identity and our constitutional destiny in the next millennium’.2 The work of McLean et al to determine the effects of the rebranding, reconstruction, and reopening of the NMS demonstrated a key interest in the creation of national museums, as one interviewee aptly stated ‘every country needs a national museum’.3        
             The Hilton of Cadboll Stone is a Pictish cross-slab dating around 800 C.E. The stone’s cross face is lost as a burial memorial was carved in its place in 1676. Additionally, the stone is broken in three sections, an upper portion, lower portion, and tenon. Excavations in 1998 to 2001 at St Mary’s Chapel discovered the previously missing lower portion and over seven thousand fragments. The stone is described as a playing ‘an iconic role in the production of a national story’ by Siân Jones and it is afforded pride of place in the Early People section of the NMS complete with a raised platform, dramatic lighting, and multimedia to explain the rich history, iconography, and cooperate interests arising from the stone. 4
            The upper portion of the stone was taken to Invergordon Castle in the mid-nineteenth century by Robert Bruce Aeneas Macleod and then offered to the British Museum in 1921 by his son Captain Roderick Willoughby Macleod. This was met with ‘widespread protest’ from politicians and antiquarians until Macleod withdrew his offer and instead donated the stone to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh in 1921. The stone became a symbol of Scottish identity, which a cursory walk through the Early People section of the NMS would imply is a mixture of Roman, Viking, Celtic, and Pictish ancestry. However, a conflict of ownership resulted in the find of the lower portion in 2001 as ‘where a museum has already acquired part of an object, as in this case, the integrity of the object is prioritised and new discoveries are usually allocated to the same museum’.5 While Hall’s work focuses on the formation of national identity as a ‘system of cultural representation’, Jones found that the people of Cadboll, displaying residual tensions over the removal of the upper portion of the stone and the uncertainty borne out of the Highland Clearances, were in fact creating these representative systems as well. Jones notes that the stone is spoken of as a living member of the community that has been taken from its home.6 Even if ‘a nation is a homogenous site for the production of an imagined cultural identity, that the authority of national heritage organisations over the management of such monuments should be accepted’ the people of Hilton expressively viewed their situation as one of oppression and misrepresentation. Issues surrounding cultural heritage, tourism, and national verses local identity can be seen played out in the Hilton of Cadboll stone.7
            While the situation of the Hilton stone is ultimately unresolved, the inclusion of the stone within the NMS allows it to function iconically as a marker of national identity at the cost of local identity. Because the actual stone is exhibited in the Early People section of the NMS, it can be seen that the ‘museum functions as an ensemble of narrative element which the able to rehears’ through the act of walking and associating like artefacts, such as the stone, with other Picitsh and thus Scottish elements.8


1. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 111
2. Clarke, David. 1996. ‘Me Tartan and Chained to the Past’, Museums Journal, 96: 75; Dewar. D. 2000. ‘Foreword’, Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (Shaftesbury, Donhead): ix
3. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 118
4. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 40.
5. Ibid, 41
6. Hall, Stuart. 1992. ‘The Question of Cultural Identity’, Modernity and its Features (Cambridge, Polity Press): 292
7. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 44
8. Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum (London, Routledge): 184

Brave ©Disney Pixar 
Hilton of Cadboll Stone © NMS 

Monday, 24 September 2012

The Artuqid Plate

Part of our purpose here at Beyond Borders is not only to share our own scholarly insights, but also to perpetuate an academic discourse about art during the global Middle Ages via our posts.  So, with this in mind, my contribution this month will focus upon an object that is multivalent, and through its layered complexity, allows many queries to be raised about its intended purpose and meaning. It is my hope that you (our readers) will comment upon the considerations I propose and formulate additional questions and/or suggestions about this interesting object.

Within my studies of Islamic artefacts, at times I have fortuitously discovered an object that, due to the contents of its textual and visual programme, questions the cultural origins to which it has been assigned. The twelfth century Artuqid Plate is such an object. The Artuqid Plate, also known as the Innsbruck Plate (the latter attribution is based upon the fact that it is part of the collection of the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck, Austria), contains illustrations that are reminiscent of both Islam and Byzantium. The artistic programme of this plate is universal enough to be seen in both Christian and Islamic regions, which may be interpreted as a clear example of cultural translation. However, this cultural translation, in turn, places this object in the conundrum of being either both Islamic and Christian or neither.

Overall the Innsbruck Plate is enameled with gilded metal. It is important to note that enamel work was not part of the repertoire of Islamic craftsmanship, but instead was more reflective of Byzantine artisanship. Both the interior and the exterior of the plate have been decorated in a similar style and the handles are a later European addition. According to Scott Redford, the plate was most likely produced in Georgia, which was periodically located in or on the fringe of Islamic empires. Per Scott Redford, the probable production of the plate in Georgia explains the use of enamel since the art created within this area was generally derived from Byzantine prototypes. The Innsbruck Plate has many illustrative features, but this post will focus upon the roundels and inscriptions on the front side of the plate. The other aspects of the plate are also significant, but will not be addressed in an effort to keep this post succinct.

The front of the plate is comprised of three sections, which will be discussed individually. The first section may be defined as the central roundel, which depicts the apotheosis of Alexander (Alexander’s glorification to a divine level). The second section is composed of the six roundels that surround the central circle and illustrate fighting scenes and frontally depicted birds. The third section is the outermost area (the lip of the plate) and is composed of inscriptions, which contain the names, titles and genealogical information of an Artuqid ruler.

Within the first section (centremost roundel) Alexander is holding two sceptres that more or less form an X or Chi. The tips of the sceptres are adorned with forms that are reminiscent of either fish or flowers, both of which embody Christian symbolism. Alexander is also flanked by what has been identified by scholars as two griffins. The griffin is a mystical creature whose varied symbolic meanings date back to antiquity. The griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature, which was used to guard precious possessions and safeguard against evil and witchcraft. An example of the griffin’s symbolism may be seen in Christendom where the duality of the griffin (its amalgamation of lion and eagle) was considered to be representation of the human and divine natures of Jesus. There are many more attributes associated with the griffin, and it may be suggested that the use of such a symbolically powerful and multivalent creature within the visual programme of the Innsbruck Plate, not only speaks of the authority of Alexander, but also of the overall symbolism of the plate.

The next section is composed of six roundels that surround the central circle. These roundels depict front facing animals and animals in combat, which may represent political prowess (associated with either Christianity or Islam), a religious meaning, or both. On one hand, it may be interpreted that the frontally illustrated birds are eagles, the evangelist symbol of John. The depictions of a halo above the eagle’s head and of the eagle grasping a snake should be noted because it may refer to evangelist imagery. On the other hand, these birds or eagles may not refer to the Evangelist John, but instead were depicted to portray an association with the tree of life, which may be the symbolic meaning associated with the illustrated trees that serve as part of the surrounding background. Other figures such as dancers and acrobats are also part of the background imagery.

The third section of the plate is the outer rim, which is composed of two lines of script, Arabic (interior) and Persian (exterior). The inscriptions are a list of titles, epithets, and names associated with the genealogy of the Artuqid rulers. Redford notes that the inscription is of poor quality and is also confusing because the manner in which the names are inscribed does not make genealogical sense. Additionally, according to Redford, the text seems to be written in a script that is described as handwritten Naskh, but is generally difficult to assign a cursive style to due to its general illegibility.

            The Innsbruck Plate holds many symbolic meanings, many of which could not be fully explored in this contribution. However, I hope this brief introduction to the plate will spark further inquiry.  Here are some of my considerations I would like to share:

*The number of roundels should be explored in relation to Christian and Islamic religious ideologies, astrology and cosmology.

*What is the significance of the images within the roundels in comparison to the background of the decorative programme?

*The Innsbruck Plate falls within a gray area of cultural origin. Should these items be considered a product of the socio-cultural inhabitants of the region instead of their religious affiliations? At this point, the recognition of cultural translation will be a necessary aspect of evaluation instead of an optional inquiry.


Redford,Scott. ‘How Islamic Is It? The Innsbruck Plate and Its Setting,’ Muqarnas, 7 (1990), 119-13.

Grabar, Oleg. ‘The Crusades and the Development of Islamic Art,’ in The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, Dumbarton Oaks, (2001), 235-245.