Articulate (verb) ärtĭ'kyəlāt: to explain meaning, to put into words coherently. Writing contemporary art, rewriting art history.

Tag: manuscript

Botany, Book, and Bugs

The Mira calligraphiae monumenta was the last great illuminated manuscript created in Europe, the magnificent final flourish of a 1500 year tradition. But there is more to the Mira than its stunning beauty: it was a museum in miniature, a way for its courtly reader to examine and understand the world.

This remarkable work was made by two artists who never actually met one other. Writing master Georg Bockskay created a ‘model book’ of extravagant and inventive calligraphy in 1561-62, during his time as court secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. This extraordinary writing album remained in the imperial collections in Vienna until Ferdinand’s grandson Rudolf II commissioned Dutch artist Joris Hoefnagel to illuminate the codex. Between 1591 and 1596 Hoefnagel filled with pages with delicately painted, masterfully observed and precisely detailed naturalia: flowers, leaves, fruits, shells, insects and tiny animals.

With these additions, Hoefnagel turned a straightforward if virtuoso manuscript into something even more exceptional, and far more complex. The illuminations set up a tension of opposites, a parergon that simultaneously complements and goes against the ‘frame’ of the scriptbook, making literal the idea that nature transcended mere written words. Hoefnagel’s illustrations confront the viewer with the ‘remoteness’ of text, however sumptuous, compared to the rich and vivid immediacy of nature. This tension operates on several levels: the naturalia of the paintings versus the artificialia of calligraphy, the spiritual versus the worldly, observation versus theorisation. It’s this last opposition that directly informs how the Mira was used by its sixteenth-century readers to construct their own picture of the natural world, remarking on the form and meanings of flowers, the attitudes of animals that reflected their qualities, how they related to the plants, and what meanings- spiritual or ‘scientific’ the flowers carried.

Looking at the hyper precise images of Mira’s flowers, as specimens often threaded through the page, it is tempting to assume they are examples of early botanical illustration. But in actuality, they descend from an older religious tradition of symbolic flowers and animals, depicted in the borders of sumptuous secular manuscripts. By the late middle ages this was a complex language based on chains of correspondences: for example, pinks (carnations) smell sweet like cloves, expensive and desirable cloves looked like tiny nails, and nails were used to nail Christ to the cross; therefore pinks in manuscripts and tapestries symbolised the crucifixion…and picked up some potent sensory associations on the way.


The late medieval movement called devotio moderna took this even further, teaching that the divine was present in the everyday. Everything became a symbol, and nothing more so than flowers and plants that people saw, touched and ate every day. Flower-strewn decorations in religious texts became unbelievably popular- even if one could not read, the symbolic meanings of flowers, birds, bugs, animals, and scenes of nature were a feast for the eyes and the soul. By the end of the 15th century, these flowers were painted as precise illusions ‘pinned’ or ‘threaded’ through cuts in the page; the truth of their physical appearance made their spiritual ‘claim to truth’ even stronger.

By the time Hoefnagel was illuminating the Mira a century later, this ‘spiritual rhetoric’ had evolved into an intellectual rhetoric tied to knowledge and ‘specimen logic’: a strategy that removed specimens from their mundane environments to display them as objects arranged into new relationships, somewhere between symbolic and scientific. Objects were key to understanding the world: natural specimens of all kinds, oddities, precious minerals, ethnographic items, and small artworks were zealously collected, and meticulously arranged and rearranged into easily ordered microcosms that summarised- and in some sense tamed- the chaotic and unfathomable macrocosm of the world. No educated gentleman or aristocrat- and certainly not Rudolf II- would be without such a wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) or kunstschrank (art cabinet) to house their collections. Although the Mira was kept as part of this kind of collection, it was a more specific kind of micro-collection in itself.


From a modern perspective this sounds bizarre; but medieval thought was more complex and multiply layered than that, adept of discerning the nuances of different modes of thought at once. Aesthetic delight and intellectual rigour were not separated in the sixteenth-century parlance, but closely bound in a methodology that located knowledge experientially as well as intellectually. Hoefnagel knew exactly how people would be reading the Mira, using it as a tool for thought and making meaning- and turned it into a wonderful game.

It’s an important point that Hoefnagel only depicted naturalia in his illuminations- precious minerals (which at the time included corals) and man-made objects are omitted, to strengthen the parergon but also simply to delight the reader. Hoefnagel seems to have had no preconceived plan for his illuminations, but responded ingeniously to the form and composition of Bocskay’s existing calligraphy with inventively composed organic forms of his own, bursting with life and colour amplified by their depiction against the blank vellum. There is never the slightest doubt of the artist’s exacting technical skill, employing foreshortening, delicate shadows, and refined modelling to create the perfect illusion of real objects occupying three-dimensional space.

Hoefnagel’s singular technique contributed to this vibrancy, being an extraordinarily refined version of medieval illumination, that builds forms with multiple layers of tiny, interlocking fine brush strokes over a very thin base. This technique lets the light-reflecting qualities of the vellum shine through, giving the entire painting a luminous quality and a sense of sharpness to complement its keenly observed subject matter.


But at the same time, Hoefnagel subverts the authority of illusion. Mira is not restrained by real specimens in glass cases- Hoefnagel was thus free to distort plant growth habits for decorative effect, and depict different species in full simultaneous bloom; to select insects suggesting a wider range than actually portrayed, and even imagine new insects, barely distinguishable from ‘real’ ones. There is an element of fantasia and transformation at work, the performative function of imagining the world.

Yet on every fine vellum folio, Hoefnagel makes the viewer sharply aware of their own assumptions about vision and meaning, frequently confounding the coherent understanding of the pictorial surface. At times the page is a perspectival window one peers through, as if into a space to see insects climbing up the sides of words or the edges of the page; at other times the pictorial surface is coincident, so that the viewer feels they are looking down onto actual snails creeping along a very solid page. The viewer is required to switch back and forth between modes of vision, and modes of understanding. Mira calligraphiae monumenta demands a semiotically intelligent reader, intrigued by the idea that text and nature could have a contingent relationship.


This is especially meaningful when considering that in the sixteenth century, the study of nature was an intensely social activity; the process of organising, describing, representing, displaying, and making meaning out of objects was almost always done in collaboration with others. The wunderkammer was an investigative place for the social and cultural construction of knowledge rather than the passive reception of didacticism. Information was discerned through visual examination, thence reified through discussion, disputatio, and intellectual display, reflecting aristocratic society’s conviction that understanding was best achieved by observation and engagement with the natural world, rather than abstract book-learning.

Yet Mira turns again turns this on its head, as a book that can offer direct experience- and one that playfully outdoes nature itself- and held in the hands, a book that can render understanding as an private experience of delighted discovery. In many ways, Mira calligraphiae monumenta is an artwork that grows more complex with study, not less.

The Marginalia of Society

This unassuming pen sketch from the Stowe MS 49, written by the scribe Alanus c.1300, shows a heavily laden family of travellers, bickering at each other as they walk- their words are connected to the one who speaks them with lines, surprisingly like a modern comic book’s speech bubbles. The children complain of the weather and the heavy burdens they carry: historian Erik Kwakkel aptly describes it as the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare, on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on. “Are we there yet?” ‘. But rather than a quaint scene, the drawing has some troubling undertones. On closer inspection, it reflects tensions between the Abbey and town that lead to some hostile and quite nasty caricatures of townspeople and especially poor transients like these, showing them as inherently sinful.


Details are significant here. The first character’s speech ‘they die for heat’, has the meaning ‘they die because of heat’; but he has a forked tongue painted in, indicating he is lying. Indeed, the third figures complains of the cold. The family are shown as near naked poor apart from cloaks and hoods, indicating their sloth, i.e. the lack of ‘respectable’, settled-in-the-town-like-decent-folk industry. (The better-off deriding the poor for their plight is not a new thing.) There is also the suggestion they are itinerant Jewish poor, with exaggerated racial features on the father and eldest son: respectively, the false tongue and the early form of judenhat on the father’s pack. That adds another level to the contempt, showing them resentful and squabbling rather than accepting their poverty with ‘Christian’ meekness.

This raft of prejudices seems incongruous coming from a monastic source, but it does connect to the body of medieval literature that satirises the clergy’s failure to show the most fundamental Christian virtue, that of charity. Intended to be seen only within the Abbey, images like this were a way to exclude outsiders and show contempt for the grubby secular world and people transgressed its established boundaries; and therefore also a way of expressing coherence in a very ordered and conformist community.
Marginalia like this was rarely a passive thing, it acted as another narrative parallel to the text of the book which can reveal some remarkable details of life and social attitudes of the time…as well as some startling and all too familiar prejudices.

An Irish Virgin

The Book of Kells’ miniature  folio 7 verso is the oldest image of the madonna in Western manuscript art. It is also one of the most complex. But while where see a simple picture of the Virgin and Child, its creators would understand the image as cosmopolitan, syncretic and deeply symbolic.

Painted by one of three artists who illuminated the Gospels codex around 800 AD, the full-page miniature depicts the Virgin enthroned with the infant Christ and attended by angels. The Virgin dominates the composition, her importance denoted by her large size and central placement. She is shown in the native Irish saffron veil and mantle rather than the more usual Byzantine maphorion, and the cross commonly found on the shoulder in Eastern depictions of the Virgin is stylised here as an Insular cruciform brooch. This is not mere culture-specific ornament: the Imperial purple mantle and the veil and brooch indicates her universality by referencing the immediately recognisable garments of both a Byzantine empress and an Irish queen.

But perhaps the most universal aspect of the Kells Virgin is her depiction as a mother. She is seated sideways on her high-backed chair with the infant Christ in her lap: a pose which despite its Hiberno-Saxon stylisation is recognisably Coptic in origin, being an unconventional variant of the seated Hodegetria type found throughout Eastern Christian art.

The finely draped texture of her clothing clearly reveals the Virgin’s breasts, seemingly out of place in religious art. But instead of being a ‘primitive’ detail, it further establishes the syncretism of the image. Prior to the ninth century, Celtic Christianity habitually articulated the Virgin almost an avatar of older fertility goddesses, with early religious literature dwelling on Mary’s sexuality and describing her breasts and womb in a frankly sexual context. Despite her sexless Coptic antecedents, this Irish Virgin is a fertile mother.

In the Kells miniature, the artist places the infant Christ seated at an angle across his mother’s lap, creating a pattern of crossed diagonals that draws attention to the figures’ interrelation. Christ looks into her face as he reaches out to his mother, and their hands touch as he leans back into her cradling arm: gestures and postures that create a sense of intimate and tender maternalism, an expression of humanised religious feeling rare in early Christian art.

Curiously, the Christ child is not only clad in saffron-dyed Irish clothing, but depicted as a small adult, complete with the curling golden hair and long moustache of a pre-Christian Celtic hero. In Irish literature, Christ was identified almost exclusively by his matronymic mac Mhuire, the son of Mary. Yet in this image, Christ’s head does not bear a nimbus like his mother’s enamel-like halo, nor is his hair depicted in the same manner as the attending angels or ordinary men. Instead, Christ’s blonde hair is arranged in the distinctive curling tendrils particular to evangelical portraits and those of Christ in several Insular gospel manuscripts, including Kells folios 32v and f114r.

It is significant that the blonde hair and red-coloured beards in these figures match earlier Roman descriptions of Gaulish heroes bleaching their hair and long moustaches with urine and lime, as well as descriptions of native Irish heroes such as Cu Chulainn in the Tain Bo Cuailnge and Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Fenian cycle; but equally it is now believed this hairstyle is associated with the tonsure worn by clerics in the Irish church. Christ is thus at once identified with pre-Christian warrior heroes and tonsured clergy, raising the cachet of the latter to the cultural heroism of the former.


The four angels attending the scene introduce a hieratic aspect to the image, overlaying its affectionate informality with dogmatic structure. As in Eastern antecedents, their wings form a canopy over the Virgin; their symmetrical placement framing mother and child imparts a monumental, iconic quality. Taken wholesale from Coptic images, three of the angels carry flabella, fans originally used to keep flies away from the eucharistic bread and wine that by the fourth century had come to figure in the liturgies of the Coptic, Byzantine and Armenian churches. The fourth carries a foliate staff, a stylised palm symbolic of the Resurrection that symbolically complements the flabella. Significantly, these processional objects refer not to God, per se, but rather to the Christian liturgy. Surprisingly cosmopolitan cultural elements to be found so far from the Mediterranean centres of Christianity, they connect the miniature and its audience at the remote edge of the world to the traditions and dogmas of the wider church.

As central to both image and doctrine, every element of the composition is placed to keep the eye fixed on the Virgin. The lozenge-like barbs at each corner (actually geometricised foliate palmettes, common to Byzantine-influenced continental manuscripts of the period) enhance the diagonal sight lines created by the angels’ wings, converging on the Virgin’s and Christ’s faces. The semicircular lunae between the angels echoes and extends the Virgin’s halo, both leading the eye both to her as well as, significantly, touching each of the angel’s flabella.

An interesting inclusion in the broad border framing the miniature is presumed to be a ‘group portrait’ of the monks of the Columban community. Entirely contained within the image that hangs off the Virgin, this detail subtly suggests the Eastern doctrine equating Mary’s physical body to the enfolding body of the Church.

More subtle still is the structure of the page itself, built around the principles of sacred geometry adopted by the early church. Set within a 4 x 3 rectangle, the page symbolically incorporates the passage between the transcendent and the manifest: the very essence of the incarnation. The artist thus parallels the spiritual made physical, to articulate the mystical and doctrinal aspects of the incarnation. At the same time, the ordinary woman who gave human flesh to her son is united with the majestic Virgin, with the structure and liturgy of the church underpinning, mediating and glorifying the emotional spiritual connection.


It is often assumed that the Virgin and Child folio, as with other miniatures and carpet pages in the codex, were displayed on the altar at Iona (and Kells) and the book read from during services. While the book’s exact usage at Iona can barely be guessed at, the circumstances of its context make this improbable. Kells does not fit these generalisations made about the physical and visual contexts for viewing and hearing: the capitularies and passages meant to be read aloud during the mass are absent from its contents, and its textual difficulties such as its turn-in-the-path line ordering and its emphasis on aesthetics over legibility would make public reading problematic…at best. The practices of the early medieval liturgy and near-windowless architecture of early Irish churches would also seem to bear this out.

The miniature’s original monastic audience would be keenly aware that the image was not solely a point of emotional connection such as we might understand, but meant to be read in terms of the doctrines and mysteries surrounding the incarnation of Christ as part of a larger majestas domini cycle formed by the other full miniatures in Kells.

Moreover, the Book’s sheer material value and astonishing craftsmanship suggests it announced the importance, authority and wealth of the community on Iona, as well as its theological and cultural sophistication…powerful enticements to potential recruits. It is precisely this sophistication that suggests the codex’s original use was within the monastic community, for religious instruction and exegesis, spiritual and aesthetic contemplation, and since Iona was an important centre of scholarship and book production, probably as an artistic model in the scriptorium. While its textual errors and the programme of aesthetics over legibility may seem to argue against its use in instruction, early medieval art acted as visual and exegetic rather than text-based instruction, which fits the culturally and dogmatically complex imagery in Kells.

It is also likely the Book served as a kind of mascot of the monastery, or even potentially, given the almost magical properties ascribed to Insular gospel books, a more literal talisman: a tour-de-force of faith and a magical quasi-relic of St Columba that may have inspired devotion and cemented together the tiny but remarkable monastic community.