Monday, 24 June 2013

The Beautiful Ties That Bind


Figure 1

In his monograph, Ornament: A Modern Perspective, James Trilling eloquently states:

 ‘The most elaborate interlace patterns are among the very few kinds of ornament that are simply too hard for even a trained viewer to “read” without substantial effort…It is also strong indicator of luxury, since it implies the highest level of craftsmanship. Thus complex interlace is part and parcel of visual display, whether the context is secular or religious. Yet its baffling intricacy suggests an additional purpose, which was apotropaic.’[i]

With my previous post ‘On the Ontology of the Medieval Manuscript’ in mind, I would like to explore Trilling’s observation of the intricate and apotropaic aspects of ornament. Within the context of medieval art history I will discuss the possible functionality of the carpet page using the Insular gospel, the Lindisfarne Gospels, as an example.

Figure 2
Ornament has been used to visually amplify an object without intruding upon its functionality. For example, an interlaced floral motif may be used on a textile or vase, but it does not change the functionality of the object. Instead, the floral motif on such objects makes the item more appealing and visually complex. However, within the context of religious manuscripts, the use of ornament, specifically interlace, may have an alternate function. The carpet pages of certain Insular gospels (such as the Lindisfarne Gospels) are examples of this different objective. The carpet pages of the gospel book are partially responsible for the sacred manuscript’s liturgical function. In many medieval books, ‘….art not only effected an elevation by ornamenting the dead flesh and carnal words, but also engaged the very process of reading and interpreting as essential to the spiritual struggle.’[ii] It is part of the ornamental programme’s objective to ensure that the manuscript continually embodies an unbiased purity, which is required to for the book to manifest its liturgical functionality. The medieval scribes’ use of pictorial representations on, or with, letters empowered the written word, mystified and fetishised it in order to protect the words from being altered or replaced, while at the same time reinforcing that the words were of God and ‘…seen as a living trace, moving, changing, being.’[iii] This sense of being was not only accomplished by the use of pictorial representations, but with the incorporation of interlace as well.

Exegetical texts by Columbanus describe the scriptures as a set of written commandments of the Lord and the apostles, which act as ‘…the necessary instruments through which the defeat of evil and eternal salvation could be obtained.’[iv] The use of intricate complex patterns with written words (such as scripture) rendered the words more difficult to read, more opaque and mysterious, and much like any enigma, more powerful.[v] The decoration of the written word has been equated to the act of clothing the word in precious garments much like a relic encased in gold and precious gems.[vi]
Figure 3
Hence, it may be suggested that a page dedicated solely to ornament, such as the carpet page, is an illustrious example of a precious, yet protective, garment whose complex design commands a space within the manuscript that allows it to autonomously function as a shroud whilst interacting with the rest of the programme. Furthermore, this protective shroud is represented by a visually symbiotic relationship between abstracted interlace and the apotropaic symbol of the cross.


Figure 4

If the intertwining of pictorial elements and interlace with text are able to invoke a sense of life and protection to the written word then the use of the same elements, without words, and on a grander scale, could be interpreted as a dynamic statement of purpose. The carpet pages within the gospel books are composed of a myriad of illustrations that emphasise the power and presence of Christ. Within the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Christian symbol of the cross, or Chi, is continually used as an element of decoration. The cross as a symbol of decorative protection was widely used on objects or places, ‘[t]he bookcover or the church door incorporating the design of the cross is certainly meant to afford sacred protection and to proclaim the holiness of the book or the place…’[vii] The purpose of the carpet pages, in the Lindisfarne Gospels, is visually rendered by the continuous use of the cross, as an apotropaic symbol, which is carefully weaved amongst knotted beasts and vegetal motifs. ‘The protective power of complex interlace explains its frequent association with the cross in virtually every branch of medieval Christian art.’[viii] The word cross is derived from the Latin word crux, which means pain or torture, but its true meaning has been forgotten and it is associated with the religious meaning of the Christian doctrine.[ix] Michelle Brown mentions that ‘[t]here was also…a long lived tradition relating to the talismanic function of the cross as a device to ward off evil… [s]uch a function may also have been an aspect of its role within Insular books for…each word was written as a “wound on Satan’s body”…’[x] In considering the talismanic traditions of the cross mentioned in the preceding quotation, the cross-carpet pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels can also be understood to have a talismanic function to avert evil from interfering with the word of God. Additionally, the now forgotten definition of crux is still applicable even when used within a Christian context to represent the protective presence of Christ. Since the cross is used as a sign to ward off evil it has to propensity to cause pain or torture the evildoer that approaches the manuscript with malicious intentions.

Figure 5
Thus, when confronted with the carpet pages of manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the sense of movement within the intricate details quickly envelops the mind and draws the eye closer in an attempt to decipher to ornate markings of the page. At first glance, one cannot help but to encounter the immediate presence of the cross, but the other interlaced decorative elements within and around the cross, work together as additive features. These features make the apotropaic symbol of the cross an intricate glorification of Christ or an emblazoned maze of confusion that has the propensity to   strike the foul-hearted viewer with fear.



~Shandra



[i] James Trilling, Ornament: A Modern Perspective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 98.
[ii] Herbert L. Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2004), 105.
[iii] Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter: The Figurative Embodiment of Writing from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 207.
[iv] Heather Pulliam, Word and Image in the Book of Kells (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), 179; ‘For these are our rules, the commands of the Lord and the apostles, in these our confidence is placed; these are our weapons, shield and sword these are our defence; these brought us from our native land ; these here too we seek to maintain, though laxly; in these we pray and hope to continue up till death, as we have seen our predecessors do,’ Columbanus Hibernus, "Letters of Columbanus I and II," ed. G.S. M. Walker, in Letters of Columbanus (Cork: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts, 2004), 17,19, accessed March 27, 2012, http://www.kennydominican.joyeurs.com/LatinPatrology/ColumbanusLetters.htm.
[v] Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter: The Figurative Embodiment of Writing from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 208.
[vi] Ibid, 50.
[vii] E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 248.
[viii] James Trilling, Ornament: A Modern Perspective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 100.
[ix] E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979), 247.
[x] Michelle Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 316.

Images:
Figure 1 (Detail) : Shandra E. Lamaute, Mark Carpet Page, March 28, 2012, Special Collections, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, in Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis, vol. 1 (Oltun Et Lausanna Helvetiae: Urs Graf, 1956-60), Folio 94v
Figure 2: Gospels of St. Chad Carpet Page Folio 220, digital image, ARTstor, accessed April 3, 2012, www.artstor.org
Figure 3 (Detail): Shandra E. Lamaute, Matthew Carpet Page, March 28, 2012, Special Collections, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, in Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex Lindisfarnensis, vol. 1 (Oltun Et Lausanna Helvetiae: Urs Graf, 1956-60), Folio 26v
Figure 4: Ibid.
Figure 5 (Detail): Ibid.

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