Abstraction / color / frame

Produced in Köln between the end of the 10th and the middle of 11th century, several Gospel books display an astonishing quantity of full page “abstract” illuminations. With minor variations, each illumination showcases a wide rectangular shape almost filling the entire page. Often, the central space contains a simple plain color – purple or white – or a series of colored horizontal stripes, framed by a simple combination of lines or a foliated decoration. In some examples, two small lion feet peek out from the bottom edge, while two equally small lilies stretch upwards from the top corners. Because of the presence of such illuminations in at least five different manuscripts, it seems they could not simply be preparatory frames for incipits or for any other kind of decoration that was left incomplete. Moreover, these illuminated pages belong exclusively to books containing the Gospels and are often inserted in key positions: either at the very beginning of the text or mirroring an important illumination such as the Maiestas Domini. The process of production of a manuscript in the Middle Ages implied a tremendous amount of time and resources, which correlates with the meticulous planning of text and illustrations. Because of this, it is sensible to assume that these pages bore a meaning that goes far beyond mere decorative purposes. However, the question still remains: what meaning could this be?

– María Aime Villano

Abstraction / plenitude / creation

Inhabited Initial C, Breviary, 1153, Montecassino, Italy, Europe, 19.2 × 13.2 cm, Tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, Ms. Ludwig IX 1, fol. 259v

The Montecassino Breviary (Ms. Ludwig IX 1) at the J. Paul Getty Museum is an extraordinary example of Romanesque manuscript illumination. It was created in the scriptorium at the Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino, a famed center of medieval learning. A prayer on fol. 248v provides the identity of the scribe (and possibly illuminator): the monk Sigenulfus. Given its small size, the codex was almost certainly intended for personal recitations of the Divine Office. There are twenty-eight highly elaborate inhabited initials throughout the text, constructed through complicated series of images, both abstracted and representational. The letters are consistently obscured by their own designs, which burst out of their frames and imbue the illuminations with a sense of animation. Light and dark blue, red, white, black, green and gold tones are used throughout the manuscript to fill this intricate patterning.

Highlighted here is the large Inhabited Initial C (fol. 259v), which dominates the page and introduces the hymn Conditor alme siderum (Nourishing Creator of the Stars). This hymn would have been recited at vespers on the first Sunday of Advent. “Conditor” is written vertically, while “alme siderum” appears horizontally underneath the large initial. The Initial C fuses natural and geometric forms to suggest both chaos and sacred cosmic order. On the left, gold paint breaks out of the delineated letterform. It appears to fill a sacred space between two mirrored dogs and a heart shape, blurring the boundaries between form and background. Although the letter is infused with symmetry and mirroring throughout its decoration, this heart shape suggests a horizontal hinge at its center. Despite the slight variations suggested by color choice and alterations of form, there is an overall sense of balance and movement conveyed in the initial.

How is the initial’s circular symmetry related to the hymn Conditor alme
siderum? How might its infinite interlocking and spiraling tendrils suggest the infinite power of God as creator? Are its forms meant to remind a viewer of the cosmos, or zodiac and star charts? How does the illumination reflect the intellectual and theological discussions happening at Montecassino? What relationship might there be between the designs of the initials and sacred geometry?

– Alexandra Kaczenski

Abstraction / cosmology / diagrams


Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers, Breviari d’amour, French, mid-14th century British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols.44v and fol. 28r

Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers, Breviari d’amour, French, mid-14th century British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols.44v and fol. 28r











This fourteenth-century manuscript is a copy of the Breviari d’amour, originally composed by Matfre Ermengaud de Beziers between 1288 and 1292 (British Library, Harley MS 4940, fols. 44v and fol. 28r). The text is written in Old Occitan, and seeks to demonstrate that the entire world is an emanation of love. The miniature on f. 44v is a diagrammatic representation of the cosmic spheres. Medieval cosmology followed a Ptolemaic model, with earth as the motionless center of the universe, surrounded by various rotating spheres, represented here as a series of concentric circles. Because this particular manuscript was left unfinished, the spheres in this miniature are missing the labels that would presumably have been written in the blank v-shaped section at top. The sublunary spheres, made up of the planet earth and the four elements (earth, water, fire, and air) were understood to be materially corruptible and changeful, while the spheres of the celestial region above were incorruptible, immutable, and perfect. The celestial region contained the seven planetary spheres, the sphere of fixed stars, the crystalline ninth heaven, and the tenth heaven, also called the primum mobile. This tenth heaven was the sphere that initiated the motion of all the spheres below it, hence its label as the primum mobile or First Mover. Beyond the primum mobile was an unmoving sphere called the empyrean heaven, which was understood to be the dwelling place of God and the angels. The relationship between the empyrean heaven and the primum mobile is represented in a miniature on fol. 28r, wherein angels hover outside the abstract geometric rendering of the cosmos and turn hand cranks in order to set the spheres below them into motion. In both miniatures, the abstract geometry of the cosmological diagrams is set off by the figural representations around them (the angels, the vine scrolls) . This contrast between figurative representation and abstract diagramming reinforces the unknowableness and unrepresentability of the cosmos.

After all, how could artists represent something that they could never see for themselves? What other kinds images juxtapose the representational and the abstract, and to what effect? How do medieval diagrams make use of abstraction to communicate complex ideas?

– Aimee Caya

Abstraction / blood / harmony

Anonymous, En la maison Dedalus, ca. 1377, Paris, France; Parchment, 210 x 158 mm (entire page); Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, University of California, Berkeley (US- BEm 744, fol. 34v)

En la maison Dedalus is the sole musical composition in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, a collection of music theory treatises copied in Paris in 1375 (Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library, US-BEm 744, fol. 34v). Its score is distinctive: two concentric five-line staves form a labyrinth. A red dot consumes the center, immediately catching the eye. This colorful point of abstraction may suggest that the composition holds sacred significance.

In the text, a lover laments his inability to reach his beloved who is trapped “in the house of Dedalus.” According to legend, the craftsman Dedalus ensnared a terrible Minotaur in an impenetrable labyrinth. Only Theseus, son of Aegeus, was able to navigate the sinuous path and slay the monstrous creature. Fourteenth-century literary texts, such as the Ovide moralisé and Petrus Berchorius’s Ovidus moralizatus, allegorize this legend in Christological terms: Christ traversed the labyrinth of sin, descended into hell, vanquished the devil, and emerged as Redeemer of the world. At this time, architects also installed magnificent labyrinths in French cathedrals, upon which clerics would reenact Christ’s Harrowing in Hell. The red center in En la maison Dedalus can be read within this theological tradition: the red dot may serve as an index both of the burning fires of hell and of the blood of Christ, which removed the stain of the Original Sin and restored order to the universe, here signified by the perfect circle.

En la maison Dedalus is first and foremost a secular chanson. In what way does the element of abstraction contribute to a sacred reading for this musical composition? Would those who interacted with the score have been aware of the possibility of such a theologically inflected reading? How does the composition, as both a visual and musical work, enter into dialogue with the surrounding treatises?

– Rachel McNellis

Abstraction / reticulation / allegory

“Comme genyus absoult nature,” Roman de la Rose, ÖNB Cod. 2568, f.143r. France or Flanders, c. 1430.

This miniature is from a Roman de la Rose manuscript, illuminated c. 1430 in Northern France or Flanders (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliotek Cod. 2568, f.143r). The scene, rubricated as “Comme genyus absoult nature,” depicts Nature, personified as a woman, in an ermine-trimmed red gown, and Genius, personified as a confessor, in white and blue robes. It represents an allegorical event from the section of the Roman de la Rose written in the 1270s by its second author, Jean de Meun, in which Nature makes her “confession” in the form of a long, philosophical discussion on God, the existence of free will, curiosities of the natural world, and the fallibilities of mankind. In this miniature, Nature kneels in profile at the feet of the seated Genius, whose face has sustained severe damage and is no longer visible. They are the only figures in an otherwise empty landscape. The ground is the same grassy green color that is depicted in all of the miniatures set in the Garden of Love. The color of the ground darkens as it recedes into the distance and meets the horizon line. Instead of the blue sky that is depicted in every other miniature of the image cycle, the background consists of reticulated squares and lines arranged into a pattern of alternating blue and gold diamonds set in a red field.

Why was an abstract pattern included in this particular scene that features these two particular allegorical characters? Is it perhaps related to the existential, philosophical content of Nature’s confession? Or does it represent a change in the narrative structure of this episode? Finally, can we regard the defaced figure of Genius a a form abstraction?

– Dominique DeLuca