Thursday, November 22, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eleven

The gravamen of the lecture concerned four works (or groups of works) stemming from the Hiberno-Saxon or Insular orbit during the period ca. 625-820.

In the Hiberno-Saxon enterprise, the Irish (converted, some of them at least, by St. Patrick prior to 493) were the senior partners. Irish monasticism was a distinctive adaptation of the Egyptian model, whereby remote islands served as hermitages. The severe conditions toughened the monks, making possible the beginnings of their wanderings. These migrations took them, in the first instance, to northern England, especially Northumbria. There the English converts proved apt pupils, matching or even surpassing the accomplishments of their Hibernian teachers.

The Sutton Hoo treasure is the first monument of English art. The instructor briefly traced and critiqued the history of the more extreme claims of English exceptionalism, while recognizing the connection with the people who first spoke the English language.

The Sutton Hoo finds from East Anglia belong to a distinctive moment of transition between paganism and Christianity. The coins found in the purse were probably meant to pay the phantom rowers who would take the king to the afterworld.

The two most remarkable objects in the treasure (now in the British Museum) are probably the gold buckle and the purse. The buckle demonstrates an intricate pattern of lacertines and interlace, probably with apotropaic intent. The purse has a remarkable set of appliques, showing the virtuosity of the goldsmiths of the time.

The Book of Durrow (ca. 675; Trinity College, Dublin) was briefly noted in the previous lecture. Here we focused on the carpet pages (three survive), which probably had an apotropaic intent.

The Book of Lindisfarne (ca. 725; British Library) is also a gospel book, in this instance certainly made in Northumbria by English scribes. Larger and more lavish than its Durrow predecessor, this book replaces the evangelist symbols with full-page portraits of these authors. While these are of Mediterranean derivation, they clearly, almost relentlessly, translate the motifs into the linear northern style.

The Book of Kells (ca. 820) is the most extravant of the three Insular gospel books examined. It ranks with the Tres Riches Heures of the Limbourg brothers as one of the two most towering masterpieces of medieval illumination. There are carpet pages, evangelist portraits, narrative scenes and much else. The most elaborate text page is devoted to a presentation of the Chi-Rho theme.

Taken as a whole, these works document the remarkable Anglo-Irish partnership, yielding works that were unique in sophistication during the era. A recent book is entitled "How the Irish Saved Western Civilization." It should have been entitled "How the Irish and the English Saved Western Civilization."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Summary of Lecture Ten

Our attention shifted to the Western Middle Ages. Although this realm gave the appearance of being the unfavored sibling of the two heirs of the Roman Empire, it turned into a Cinderella, as Western Europe was eventually to generate many of the key institutions that were to characterize the modern world.

The differing barbarian groups left their imprint on the emerging nation states of Western Europe (ethnogenesis). There were two contrasting pairs. In England and Germany. the language and culture of the intruders became dominant. In Spain and Italy--despite the heritage of the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Lombards--the original romance culture predominated. France saw a mixed system, as Germanic (Frankish) elements played a key role. This form of hybridity helped to assure the hegemony of France through much of the Middle Ages.

An excursus dealt with the written assignment. While religious art dominated, the Middle Ages (as a hierarchical society) saw a significant production of political imagery We suggested that an initial approach to the problem involves an enumeration of all the realms in which such imagery was likely to be found. These include coins (see Internet for examples), luxury items, buildings and monuments, mosaics and frescoes, and illuminated manuscripts.

An initial comparison of the Constantine coin documenting the 312 victory in Rome and the Missorium of Theodosius revealed significant similarities and contrasts. The path indicated by the Missorium might lead to the David plates from the Cyprus treasure (ca. 628), while the coin discloses many possibilities of follow up. Sometimes such objects are interesting for what they do not show--e.g. the absence of Christian imagery in the Missorium, and the lack of "Frankish" themes in the Charlemagne coin, with its "renaissance" orientation to the Roman imperial past.

Then we returned to the main theme of the lecture. Heretofore we have considered only two legs of our tripod: the classical and the Middle Eastern. Now we can access the Northern, or "barbarian" contribution. This had two components: the older Celtic stratum, going back to before the Roman conquest, and the newer Germanic strain.

In a previous lecture we discussed the consequences of the shift from papyrus and scroll to parchment and codex. In this lecture we sought to document the appearance of a third revolutionary contribution: new forms of writing and decoration in the Merovingian period. There were two main conmponents: the animated initial, and the binary typographical system of majuscule and minuscule. The latter has continued to be normative in our printed books (and even out computers, such as the one I am writing on).

In conclusion we briefly considered, via the Book of Durrow, the alternative system that developed in the Hiberno-Saxon realm. Adducing significant earlier "barbarian" decorative accoutrements, including such bling as spirals and interlace, the insular books also adopted a decrescendo method as a transition from the initial to the main text.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Summary of Lecture Nine

Broadly speaking, the period stretching from 565 (death of Justinian) to 843 (conclusive settlement of the icononoclastic controversy) was a time of troubles in the Byzantine Empire. Major territorial subtractions occurred: Italy (lost to the Lombards), the central-southern Balkans (occupied by the pagan Slavs), and Syria and Egypt (Muslim).

In addition, the Persians invaded, only being defeated with great effort by Heraclius in 628.

Two contrasting examples of art in the time of Heraclius were examined: the Cyprus Plate in the Met of David Fighting Goliath (intensely classicizing) and the mosaic of St. Demetrios (frontal and "Middle Eastern"). This contrast shows that the dichotomy of style, while it was minimized in the time of Justinian, persisted all the same. The classicizing current was to recur throughout later Byzantium, as seen in the Paris Psalter (also showing, inter alii, David).

The early sixth century witnessed a chill in the status of images. The first response, the Jewish one, was the mildest: they simply stopped making images in synagogues. The Muslims had always disapproved of images in mosques. In 721 the Caliph Yazid issued an edict commanding the destruction of such images in Christian churches. Laxly enforced, this step nonetheless was a major step.

In 726, apparently, Leo the Isaurian took the first step of iconoclasm, by destroying a favorite image over the great gate of the Palace in Constantinople. His son Constantine V was especially rigorous. Neither was against images as such, since secular ones appeared, but against religious images, held to be an invitation to idolatry.

The dispute was not finally settled until 843. The iconodules had won--but at a price. No religious figures in the round were allowed. Reverence for icons was supposed to be directed solely at the prototype (the holy figure)--not at the material object.

Beginning apparently in 867, Hagia Sophia was reequipped with images, some of which were seen in class. The Catholicon at Hosios Lukas, a cross-in-square church, demonstrates the hierarchical principle of allocation of mosaics, with Christ in the dome, the Virgin in the main apse, and the other scenes and figures distributed according to rank.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eight

The class concerned the invention of the book, especially the illustrated book, as we know it during the late-antique period. The previous standard had been set by the Egyptians, who developed papyrus as a support for writing. They then glued the papyrus sheets together to form scrolls. This method was used by the Greeks and during the earlier Roman period. Papyrus is friable, a weakness abetted by frequent unrolling of the scrolls.

Parchment made from skins of animals emerged as a more durable support material. By the fourth century the codex became dominant replacing the scroll. This technique posed the issue of dual composition, verso and recto, at each opening--a potential not always well realized (as we saw with the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux).

The pictorial material commonly employs the device of continuous narrative, seen in the reliefs of the Column of Trajan and (almost a millennium later) in the Bayeux Tapestry.

To permit some conclusions about the origins of the illustrated book, we examined three examples from the Hebrew Bible and three from the New Testament. Because of its poor condition, the Quedlinburg Itala leaf is hard to assess (but see the illustration in Nees). It is unique in showing four closely related scenes from the Book of Samuel. Flaking of the pigment discloses instructions to the illustrator: "Here paint this."

There are basically two schools concerning the origin and development of pictorial cycles. The first, headed by Kurt Weitzmann, holds that the artists were essentially conservative and that the pictorial recensions lead back to a single archetype, presumably an illustrated Septuagint.

However, supporting evidence has not emerged, and another school (supported e.g. by Lawrence Nees) holds that the artists were more creative, and that there is no single archetype. The instructions in the Quedlinburg leaf would seem to support the Nees position.

Badly burned in 1731, the fragments of th3e Cotton Genesis nonetheless attest a very rich cycle in this manuscript. Also rich is the imagery of the well-preserved Vienna Genesis, a purple manuscript of the sixth century. Here the scene of Rebecca and Eliezar is a notable example of continuous narration.

The Rossano Gospels is purple manuscript of the New Testament. Two elaborate scenes of Christ before Pilate suggest derivation from monumental frescoes or mosaics.

The Rabbula Gospels of 586 is an elaborate Syriac manuscript, with notable full-page scenes of the Crucifixion and the Ascension. The canon tables illustrate the architectural principle of the great arch embracing lesser ones, suggesting the concept of hierarchy.

St. Augustine's Gospel in Cambridge is a fragment of Luke. In addition to the narrative scenes, there is a large portrait of the evangelist, accompanied by his symbol, a winged bull.

These vari0us scenes are important because they mark the inception of a system of iconography, which (with various permutations) lasted until the time of the French Revolution.