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 รก 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. 

-Fabian 

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