Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 18, 2001
John Williams, ed. Imaging the Early Medieval Bible University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. 228 pp. Cloth $75.00 (0271017686)

For much of the twentieth century, the study of medieval Bible illustration was focused on the problem of origins. In the most systematic theory of the genre, Kurt Weitzmann argued in Roll and Codex (Princeton, 1947) that the earliest biblical manuscripts followed the conventions of ancient papyrus rolls in which narrative images were embedded within narrow columns of text, providing a dense sequence of pictorial equivalents to the principal episodes of the text. Establishing a rigorous method of “picture criticism,” Weitzmann argued that one could detect in later cycles the different phases of adjustment that resulted from the gradual emancipation of images from text columns to create sophisticated pictorial frontispieces in response to the new format and material of the parchment codex. Arranged in “recensions,” picture cycles in manuscripts, together with the evidence of narrative illustration in other media, ultimately allowed one to reconstruct the original archetype. Though dedicated to Weitzmann’s memory, Imaging the Early Medieval Bible offers the most sustained critique of his method since his death. Editor John Williams introduces the essays as “a reaction to the lavish attention directed at archetype and model” (7). The authors further aim to interpret individual cycles of biblical narrative as “discrete responses in particular cultural contexts to a growing and experimenting world of biblical imagery” (8).

The first essay, “The Beginnings of Biblical Illustration,” by John Lowden surveys all the surviving, illustrated biblical manuscripts ranging from ca. 400 up to the seventh century. Focusing on aspects of production and layout, Lowden observes that even within this small sample of fourteen works, a remarkable variety of approaches is evident in both the content and the layout of illustrations vis-à-vis the text. Rather than seeing these variations as reflections of different phases of development away from the “archetypal” rotulus format, Lowden reasons that they are products of a period of experimentation in which there was “no normative procedure for biblical illustration.” Moreover, he proposes that the entire range of image types—devotional images as well as author portraits and narrative illustrations—have their origins not in ancient text illustration, as Weitzmann had argued, but in monumental church decoration about 400. Lowden further challenges the traditional interpretation of Gregory the Great’s dictum as proof that church decoration was based on pictorial models in books. In Lowden’s reading of Gregory and earlier writers, a careful distinction is made “between the biblical book which contains the text, which you have to be able to read to understand, and the church, which contains the image which you can understand at some level without being a proficient reader” (55-56).

Katrin Kogman-Appel focuses on a more strictly iconographical aspect of Weitzmann’s scholarship in her essay, “Bible Illustration and the Jewish Tradition.” In attempting to explain the presence of extrabiblical, Jewish elements in Old Testament illustration, Weitzmann argued that Jewish influence came into Christian Bible illustration primarily through the vehicle of earlier Jewish picture cycles. Heinrich Strauss and others, by contrast, have suggested that the rabbinical elements in Old Testament iconography derive from literary tradition, especially from early Church fathers who absorbed elements of Jewish exegesis into their own writings. Kogman-Appel opts for a middle ground. Emphasizing the need to distinguish the diverse sources of Jewish exegesis—apocryphal, midrashim, and nonrabbinical texts such as Philo and Josephus—she affirms that no proof of rabbinical elements exists in patristic sources, and argues against hypothetical, lost texts to explain Jewish elements in Christian iconography. She likewise rejects Weitzmann’s notion that the Dura frescoes and later Christian manuscripts, such as the Vienna Genesis, reflect an earlier Jewish cycle of text illustrations including the extrabiblical material. She reasonably proposes that Christian images, rarely influenced by Jewish pictorial cycles, instead absorbed Jewish motifs largely from nonrabbinical texts and in an ad hoc response to Jewish tradition at specific times and places where Church fathers and rabbis were in direct contact.

In the third essay, “Biblical Manuscripts in Rome, 400-700 and the Ashburnham Pentateuch,” Dorothy Verkerk focuses on the Christianization of Biblical illustration in Rome. Although the Ashburnham Pentateuch often has been ascribed to Spain, North Africa, or France, Verkerk makes a strong case (mainly iconographic and codicological) for localizing it to the region of Rome at the end of the sixth century. Contrasting this manuscript with the only other two witnesses of early medieval biblical illustration from Rome—the Quedlinburg Itala and the Gospels of Saint Augustine—she argues that the three different approaches to narrative illustration reflect changing cultural circumstances. The Quedlinburg Itala (ca. 400), with its sophisticated landscape settings and balanced compositions, represents “the legacy of the classical world”; the Gospels of Saint Augustine, destined to support church missions to Northumbria in the sixth century, deploys simplified pictorial techniques to enhance its legibility. By contrast, the late sixth-century Pentateuch incorporates complex typological interpretations into the Old Testament narrative. Thus, she argues that in the Exodus frontispiece, the wilderness tabernacle is transformed into a Christian sanctuary with specific reference to Roman liturgical practice, including seven priests attired as deacons to represent the seven diaconates of Rome; the anthropomorphic image of God the Father in the same miniature further reflects the distinctly Roman image of the Creator found in the Early Christian genesis cycle of San Paolo fuori le mura.

In his essay, “Problems of Form and Function in Early Medieval Illustrated Bibles from Northwest Europe,” Larry Nees argues that the single-volume Bible came into its own at the end of the eighth century in Carolingian Europe as a result of the reforms of religious life and a renewed sense of the Bible’s symbolic value. Since single-volume Bibles had no place within the regular liturgy, Nees reasons that they were mass-produced at this time to meet the new demand for general reading in the community, at chapter or in refectory. He further distinguishes the unadorned “economy-class” versions of the text, such as the volume made about 800 for Theodulf of Orleans, from more luxurious volumes like the ones associated with Charles the Bald, the Vivian Bible, and the Bible of San Paolo fuori le mura. The former example, well-worn from continuous use, Nees terms a “reference work”; the latter manuscripts, he suggests, were conceived as objects of gift exchange. Remarkable for their size as well as their inclusion of ostentatious, ornamental text pages and full-page illustrations, they were intended primarily for the eyes of a single, prestigious patron. Nees finds a precedent for these luxury volumes in the Codex Amiatinus, made ca. 700 in Northumbria as a gift to Saint Peter’s shrine in Rome. Rejecting the common notion that this manuscript substantially copies the decoration of Cassiordorus’s lost Codex Grandior, Nees amplifies the case for Northumbrian originality already advanced by Karen Corsano. The canon tables, he argues, could not have come from the Codex Grandior because that manuscript used the Old Latin translation rather than the Vulgate; they must have been adapted from an earlier Gospel Book. The diagram pages are shown to be inventive adaptations of late antique vocabulary in their insertion of medallion portraits of the three persons of the Trinity. Nees singles out for special attention the representation of God the Father in anthropomorphic form (fol. VI r). Resembling the bearded, Jovian Pantocrator introduced on Byzantine coinage by Justinian II (692-95; 705-11), this image, Nees speculates, would have been inserted to please the recipient of the book, Pope Constantine. This pope negotiated a compromise with Justinian II concerning the disputed Quinisext Council of 692, the acts of which advocated the representation of Christ in human form.

Williams concludes the volume with his essay on “The Bible in Spain.” He uses the “Bible of 960” from San Isidoro in Leon as a test case for the Weitzmann method because it is the earliest extensively illustrated pandect from Spain and has long been assumed to depend on a much earlier archetype. No less than ninety-two narrative scenes are interspersed within columns of the Old Testament text, sometimes expanding to include upper or lower margins. As Williams shows here, however, no convincing evidence exists for a prior tradition of dense pictorial narrative in Spain. The earlier “Bible of 920” contains only four rudimentary, two-figure narratives from the New Testament. Williams also rejects as generic the comparisons made by Koehler and Mutherich with Carolingian manuscripts such as the Stuttgart Psalter and the Middle Byzantine Octateuchs. Reviewing illustrations from Exodus and Kings, Williams demonstrates that the Spanish iconography departs from its cousins in key details. As for format and production, he proposes that the illustrations would have been conceived ad hoc as the copying of the text proceeded. With the exception of the Leviticus frontispiece, the illustrations appear at regular intervals immediately after the short passages of text they represent. Thus, a relatively insignificant episode such as Goliath’s Challenge to the Israelites is shown instead of David challenging Goliath. Recalling the painter Maius’s colophon in the Morgan Beatus, Williams concludes that the pictures were designed primarily as a form of adornment to the text, contributing “communicative power and immediacy to the biblical narrative.”

Collectively, these essays underline the pitfalls of the Weitzmann method when it is applied too narrowly and without allowing for artistic innovation. This critique is hardly new, given the extensive reorientation of the field over the past twenty years (for production and function, one thinks of recent studies by Jonathan Alexander; for patronage and politics, Herbert Kessler and William Diebold). Of greater value is the way the authors show that early medieval Bible illustration evolved as a continual process of experimentation. Rarely did artists simply copy established archetypes. More often, they responded to the specific circumstances of patronage, function, and ritual, as well as the material setting in which the books were produced.

Thomas E. A. Dale
Professor and Chair, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison