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. 


<a href="http://www.hypersmash.com">Hyper Smash</a>

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. http://www.santiquattrocoronati.org/index_enn.htm.

[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. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1086220/number-symbolism/248165/8.>
[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. <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&res_dat=xri:pld&rft_dat=xri:pld:ft:all:Z300164216>.
[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.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Some thoughts on the Shrine of San Vicente in Ávila

The Shrine of SS Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta
In the city of Ávila, also called City of Stones and Saints, in the South of Castile within the Basílica de San Vicente, a remarkable Romanesque shrine has survived that unfortunately has not received the attention of scholars it deserves. In today's post I will introduce the shrine and its saints and give an overlook of its imagery and meaning.

The shrine was probably built between 1180 and 1185 (with several later Gothic additions) for the Basilica San Vicente in Ávila.1 It houses the remains of Saint Vicente, also the patron saint of the church, and his sisters Sabina and Cristeta. According to legend, Vicente refused to partake in pagan rituals and was thus imprisoned in Talavera, his home town. While imprisoned, he is visited by his sisters who aided in his escape to Avila. The siblings were caught shortly after their escape and tortured by their captors until they were finally executed. This rendition of the legend was first recorded by Prudentius in his Peristephanon in the fourth century. By the time the shrine was built, however, the legend had been expanded to include an additional episode. After the saint's martyrdom, their bodies were guarded by a snake sent by God until they were discovered by a Jew. The snake attacked him and only released him once he called unto Christ. The Jew thus converted and built a basilica for the saints, so they could receive a proper burial there. As we shall see later, this additional episode became a significant feature in the visual programme of the shrine.
North side of the shrine
The shrine follows the design of a two-aisled basilica. The shrine's north and south side depict the legend of Saint Vicente, Sabina and Cristeta. On the east and west side, we can see a depiction of the Epiphany and the Theophany. The arcades on which the whole structure rests, is decorated with representations of the apostles as well as religious and secular figures. On the north side of the shrine the visual narration begins with Vicente's refusal to worship the pagan gods, followed to the right by his sisters’ visit and their escape. On the south side the story continues with their capture in Ávila, their torture on X-shaped crosses and their martyrdom by having their heads smashed by massive stone blocks. The next two scenes focus entirely on the Jew who found them; first by showing him, identifiable by his cap, beard and physiognomy, being attacked by the snake, then by building the shrine for the saints. In the second scene the change in his attire is of great significance as his shirt indicates that the scene occurs after he received his baptism.

The Jew builds the shrine for the saints
The Jew is attacked by the snake
It appears the shrine shows an ambiguous image of Jews within the legend. On the one hand we see the Jewish figure, corresponding to the legend, finding the bodies, converting and making sure that the saints receive the burial they deserve by building a shrine for them above which the basilica was built. The fact that this part of the legend constitutes large part of the imagery, as well as the resemblance of the depicted basilica to the Basilica de San Vicente creates an image of the church within the church.2 Additionally, the convert becomes an integral part not only of the story but of the history and identity of the Basilica and the city of Ávila
The martyrdom of the saints
However, there is a significant addition in the visualisation of the legend. In the scene of the martyrdom a figure has been added that is identifiable as Jew by its physiognomy. Simultaneously an additional Jewish figure seems to partake in the execution of the martyrs. It has been suggested that the Jew in this programme is turned 'from the happenstance observer of the Visigothic tale to a persecutor who nurtures as an active hostility to the young saints.'3 However, based on the different clothing it appears to me that these figures may in fact be two separate individuals. This would imply that the imagery of the shrine is not polemicising again Jews in the same generalising way as can be observed in other visual material. Though of course a polemic still remains, and the positive aspect of the Jew who finds the bodies is only possible due to his conversion. Nevertheless, the imagery seems to indicate an approach to the Other, that is not purely generalising, but explores notions of individual actions. However, such reading needs to be looked at in more detail, especially with regards to the specific socio-historical context in Ávila, which will be part of my further PhD studies.


1 See Goldschmidt, Werner. “El Sepulcro de San Vicente, En Avila.” Archivo Español de Arqueología 12 (1936): 161–170 for a full account of the dating.
2 See Camps, Daniel Rico. “A Shrine in Its Setting: San Vicente de Ávila.” In Decorations for the Holy Dead: Visual Embellishments on Tombs and Shrines of Saints, edited by Stephan Lamia and Elizabeth Valdez del Alamo, 57–76. Turnhout: Brepols, 2002 for a detailed analysis of the different layers in the relationships between shrine, imagery and church.
3 Patton, Pamela Anne. Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, 27-31.

Images: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Sepulcro_de_los_Santos_M%C3%A1rtires,_Basilica_of_San_Vicente,_%C3%81vila

Monday, 21 October 2013

Enisala – romantic setting, disputed history

‘Advertised’ as the only medieval fortress in Dobruja, the southeastern region in Romania, bordering the Black Sea, Enisala is an extremely rewarding experience, as adjectives like ‘romantic’, ‘glorious’, and ‘legendary’ flood one’s mind at the first visit. If heading north from Jurilovca, one is guided by a corridor of trees and welcomed by the image of the fortress, at a distance, standing tall and proud on a hill whose structure and appearance make the traveller recall Scottish landforms, with a twist of French Provence, in an extremely approachable Romanian landscape.

Seen from afar as an irregular polygonal construction, Enisala had two chambers and walls built of rock (Jurassic lime). With natural defences to the western, southwestern, and northern part, the access to the fortress is via the southeastern wall. The first chamber has four towers and three abutments and was discovered during the archaeological diggings undertaken between 1963 and 1964, while the second chamber was discovered following an aerial picture taken around 1969. It was located to the north of the first chamber and was larger in area.

The name of the fortress was formed by adjoining the Turkish word ‘yeni’ [new] and the Dobrujan regionalism ‘sale’ [settlement]. The explanation may reside in the fact that the Turks may have adapted the name of the administrative unit near the fortress, called Vicus Novus [the new village], and later on Novoe Selo. Although there are sources referring to Enisala Fortress under the Latin names of Heraclia or Heracleea, how can the Turkish influences be explained?

Built by the Genovese powers at the end of the thirteenth century/beginning of the fourteenth century on the ruins of a Byzantine structure and later on included in the defence system of Wallachia [the southern Romanian region stretching during the rule of Mircea the Elder (1386-1418) between the Southern Carpathians (to the north), the Danube (to the west and south), and the Black Sea (to the east)], Enisala had a strategic and military role. Its main mission was to control and to defend the land and especially the water traffic when Lake Razim – which it overlooks – was still a gulf of the Black Sea. During that period, the Genovese were practically the only ones in the region to afford investing in a construction of such grandeur and Enisala Fortress was an establishment to join the other Genovese settlements in the region – the towns of Chilia and Likostomion in Danube Delta, Cetatea Albă at the mouth of Nistru River, as well as Caffa and Balaclava in southern Crimea. First conquered by the Turks in 1388, it was reconquered by Mircea the Elder in 1393 and lost again to the Turks in 1417. When the latter managed to conquer Chilia and Cetatea Albă in the second half of the fifteenth century and following the formation of the sand streams separating Lake Razim and the Black Sea, Enisala was abandoned because it was no longer according to the strategic and economic interests of the Ottoman Empire. 

Enisala’s downfall would actually be its salvation. In spite of the order given by the Russian generals, aiming at the destruction of all the medieval fortresses in northern Dobruja 200 years ago during a period of heightened Russian influence in the region, Enisala was the only one to escape by being inactive at that time. As a result, it boasts the label listed at the beginning of this article and can still delight the eye of the travellers and historians alike. 

 -Contributed by Olivia-Petra Coman.
http://360.inp.org.ro/index.php/obiective/cetatea-enisala-jud-tulcea-tur-virtual-video (accessed 22/09/13) 
http://www.cetateaenisala.ro (accessed 22/09/13) ‘Archaeological News, European Lands’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 54, No. 4 (1950) Bilde Pia, Guldager; Bøgh, Birgitte; Handberg, Søren; Munk Højte, Jakob; Nieling, Jens; Smekalova, Tatiana; Stolba, Vladimir; Baralis, Alexandre; Bîrzescu, Iulian; Gergova, Diana; Krapivina, Valentina; Krusteff, Krassimir; Lungu, Vasilica, and Maslennikov, Alexander, ‘Archaeology in the Black Sea Region in Classical Antiquity 1993-2007’, Archaeological Reports, No. 54 (2007–2008), pp. 115-173 
Iosipescu, Raluca and Iosipescu, Sergiu, ‘Cronica cercetărilor arheologice din România’, Campania 2011, București

            © Marcel Băncilă

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Beyond Borders Welcomes Olivia Petra

Beyond Borders would like to welcome Olivia-Petra Coman!

We look forward to hosting Olivia's post on Enisala, a medieval fortress is Dobruja, Romania on Monday 21st of October. Don't forget to follow Olivia on twitter and check out her amazing blog, Petra's Chessboard.


History postgraduate student and experienced traveller, always thirsty for adventure.

I travel the world to discover its hidden treasures, I dream to get to the historical sites I’ve only explored in books, and I hope to make a difference through my work and vision of the world around me.  


Twitter: @oliviapetra

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