Abstraction / figural / elusiveness

Title Page of Abbot Berno’s “Tonarius”: Initial D[omino], c.1030, Germany, Abbey of Reichenau, 11th century, ink, tempera, and gold on vellum, Sheet: 21.5 x 15.3 cm (8 7/16 x 6 in.). Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1952.88

 

From Barnett’s Newman’s zips to the vibrating filaments of a Pollock painting to the
dizzying concentric circles of Op Art, abstract pictorial space has invited the modern, contemplative viewer to consider a realm behind and beyond the canvas. Perhaps upon receiving this tonary, the reader would have experienced a similar sensation of being drawn into abstract space in this medieval manuscript.


This leaf was originally the dedication page of the Tonarius (or Tonary) written by Reichenau’s Abbot Berno (1008-1048) and dedicated to Archbishop Pilgrim of Cologne (1021- 1036), whose name appears below the illumination: DILECTO (the term of dedication) ARCHIPRESVLI PILIGRIMO. Tonaries were manuals that regulated the Gregorian chant melodies used to sing the psalms. Presumably the first illustrated page in the manuscript, the illumination would have invited a reader into the book and into the initial itself. Three immediately recognizable letters emerge from among cloying tendrils of gold. A large “O” in gold and orange contains a small “n” and “o,” which are placed on top of each other on color fields of green and then blue, in the center of the smallest “o.” The DO inscribed beneath the initial indicates the word “Domino,” or “lord or master.” However, even as the initial is spelled out letter by letter, the illustration defies both figural space and language, reaching into the abstract. Floral filigree escapes the frame of the large O and creeps up to the wider frame of the illustration; individual gold-leaf vines outlined in orange weave under and over the framed border, transgressing even this visual space. Other letters from the word “Domino” remain elusive, which leads us to some specific questions about the initial and inscription.


Questions: Where is the “m” in Domino? Is it indicated by the line over the DO? What does the “Q” signify next to these letters suggest? Is the horizontal line running across the central “o” in the initial perhaps the “i” of Domino? Why is the “D” not a part of the initial? Moreover, as we take visual step back, questions arise about the page as a whole. Why does the initial transgress the frame in this particular location? What is the significance of the color and geometry within the initial and framed space? Are they abstract references to the heavenly realms or the cosmos? What specific text does the “Domino” refer to? Could the initial be an extremely abstracted reference to Archbishop Pilgrim himself—a “lord” in the church?


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