Friday, February 24, 2012

Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Astrology and theology
The religious feasts are the main contents of the Calendars of Psalters or Books of Hours. Its illustration shows the typical activities of the seasons of the year in the Labours of the Month and the passing of astronomical time in the Signs of the Zodiac.

Ever since man recognized some kind of regularity in the movement of stars and planets, he has believed that the celestial bodies influenced earthly events. Ideas, ultimately dating back to Babylonian times, persisted in the Middle Ages, and even today horoscopes continue to be drawn. In some regions of the world hardly a marriage is concluded without a serious look at the constellations.

Christian theologians were of course most familiar with the astrological ideas of the Graeco-Roman world.

These presented a challenge to their own ideas about the omnipotence of God, and they wrote many pages to reject what was unacceptable in their eyes.

Natural history and bestiaries
Bestiaries and other texts on natural history are populated with animals both actual and fabulous. It is as if they illustrate the story of the fifth and sixth day of the Creation: living creatures each after its kind. The properties ascribed to certain animals made them suitable as metaphors of vices or Christian virtues. As modern books and movies demonstrate, both real and phantasy animals continue to challenge our imagination.

Griffin: Part eagle, part lion, the griffin fuses the two mightiest animals into one. Ruling heaven and earth, immortal and of a double nature, it can symbolize Christ. When a griffin mates with a mare, they produce a Hippogriff: the eagle part of a griffin, hind legs and tail of a horse. The Hippogriff still lives: it is the pet of Hagrid, one of the main characters of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga.


St. Petronilla holding the devil by a leading-string

Forms of evil
As is shown here, the devil may take on different guises in the illuminations we find in these manuscripts, but there are three basic ingredients: man, animal, and pure phantasy. When he tries to tempt Christ in the desert, or when he fools a nobleman, he looks almost human. But the miniaturist makes sure he does not fool us: his feet are that of an animal, or his eyes are burning coals.

The pictures tell us, that he may turn himself into a cat. He may also be a pale, threatening creature taking souls to hell. The colourful monsters pestering saint Pachomius could have been designed by Bosch. Finally, the devil that seduces Theophilus to sell his soul, looks like one of the more malicious Muppets designed by Jim Henson.

Holy helpers: male saints and female saints
The veneration of saints is as old as the Christian church itself. Christians believed that saints could intercede for them with God. Of couse many still do. Where saints were buried, people gathered to celebrate the anniversary of their death. On this foundation an elaborate system developed during the Middle Ages. For specific complaints or dangers people would ask help from a specific saint.
Apollonia: A deaconess in Alexandria. She refused to renounce Christ and her teeth were broken during torture. They threatened to burn her if she persisted. She didn't wait, but jumped into the fire herself. She protects against toothaches and is patroness of dentists.


Creation of Sun, Moon and Stars
The Creation of the World
The beginning of Genesis, the first book of the bible, has always given rise to reflection and debate. In the Middle Ages this debate remained of course within the boundaries of the Christian faith. The created universe was an accepted fact, not an opinion to be discussed. Since Darwin and the rise of evolutionary theory, the debate has received an added dimension, and it certainly has not lost its topicality. One only has to search the internet with the combined keywords 'evolution' and 'creation' to get an impression of the occasional intensity of the discussion. This gallery, obviously, is not a contribution to the debate. It merely serves to show how the creation was visualized in the Middle Ages.

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