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?

Abstraction / pattern / natural

Sacramentary of Henry II, Clm. 4456, Regensburg, 1002-1014 360 leaves: parchment, illuminations; 30 x 24 centimeters

Borrowing patterns from the mid-Eighth century Carolingian Codex Aureus of Charles the Bald (Clm. 14000), the Ottonian Sacramentary of Henry II was likely produced before Henry II (973–1024) became Holy Roman Emperor. The borders and frontispieces in the manuscript are filled with elaborate and dizzying abstractions. Many are arboreal or floral, while others are solely geometric. A prime example of the abstractions found within the entire codex is folio 16v, which begins what is now known as the Missale Romanum 1962 and reads in near-invisible Latin uncials, “TE IGITVR CLEMENTISSIME PATER” (“Therefore, most gracious Father”). The word “TE” is incorporated into swirls of golden and orange-lined vines over a background filled with varying points of red, blue, and green. The “T” occupies most of the space; the “E” is smaller and relegated to the right side. The “T” is filled with Celtic-like knots, and it intimates heavily the shape of the Cross. Illusionistic and maze-like shapes occupy the borders, with windmill patterns (wreath and clipeus-esque) at the center right, left, top, and bottom margins. Taken in at once, the folio is bewildering. No single detail overpowers at first, and then the words suddenly emerge from the page, as if from ether.


Questions: While borrowing from the Codex Aureus perhaps implies a desire by the illuminator to emphasize an imperial lineage for Henry II, why reuse and expand the abstracted elements? What are the implications of the geometric and arboreal patterns intertwining or appearing side-by-side? How is abstraction used to suggest natural matter (hyle or silva) and perhaps Genesis? Why might these be important to the imperial provenance of the manuscript? How do arboreal and floral designs interact and relate to the materials of the manuscript (ink, paint, gold, and animal skin)? Does this kind of design prompt a certain reaction from the viewer? How and when is the viewer to interact with the codex? How was the page laid out? Is there a geometric root to the seemingly free-drawn designs?

– Reed O’Mara

Abstraction / geometry / interaction

Carpet page, Lindisfarne Gospels book, Lindisfarne, England, c.715-720, ink and tempera on vellum, 34×24 cm, The British Library, London, Cotton MS Nero D. IV, f. 210v

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, most likely produced around the years 715-720 in the monastery at Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumberland, by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721). Eadfrith’s successor, Ethelwald, crafted the now-lost original leather binding, which in turn was decorated with jewels and precious metal by Billfrith the Anchorite. In the third quarter of the 10th century, Aldred, provost of Chester-le-Street, translated word by word the Latin text of the Lindisfarne Gospels in an Old English gloss and added it between the lines of the original text. Aldred was also responsible for the colophon (f. 259r), in which he outlined the history of the manuscript. The creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels book was expensive and laborious. Indeed, 300 calfskins were used to make the vellum, and precious pigments were imported from the Himalayas for the ambitious decoration. Its images display a complex combination of artistic styles, ranging from Celtic and Anglo-Saxon to Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions. The iconographic program includes the canon tables (ff. 10r–17v), a Chi-Rho page (f. 29r), and decorative initials throughout the manuscripts. In addition, each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of the Evangelist writing his text (ff. 25v, 93v, 137v, 209v), followed by an intricately “carpet page” (ff. 2v, 26v, 94v, 138v, 210v), and by the incipit of his gospel (ff. 3r, 27r, 95r, 139r, 211r). Folio 210v is one of the five “carpet pages,” named for its striking resemblance to a Persian rug, composed of intricate abstract design. This folio is located after the illumination with the evangelist John and before the incipit page of his gospel. It is an extraordinary example of a page for pure decoration. The symmetrical composition of the folio displays a central Greek cross, surrounded by four crosses in the shape of a “T”, four vertical rectangles, four “L”-shape patterns, and four small squares. These geometric forms are embellished by knot work, spiral motifs, geometric meanders, and framed by a thick red outline. They stand out against the intricate and meticulously designed background, which shows an extensive interlacing of colorful birds grasping each other’s tails. This complex visual puzzle is contained within a double red frame. Each corner is adorned by a red and blue checkered grid, ending with a zoomorphic gold head. Other similar hybrid animal heads, shown in profile and developed in intricate gold knot work culminating at a green round disk, resting above the images, are inserted in the middle of each side of the frame. 

What is the purpose of the abstraction on this page? How was this geometric illustration meant to elicit meditation from the viewer? The page shows a complex and very intricate design; how was this pattern created and outlined on the folio? Was this geometric design inspired by any other objects made in other media and produced at the same time or earlier?

– Angelica Verduci