Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Musings

Happy Journée de la Femme to everyone! (It merits a separate blog post - this will happen!)

Would you like some stained glass? Iris is seen here showing a sample of some of her productions. Note the innovation of the heart-shaped tracery, and the subtle blend of color (PINK!) whose visual field is punctuated by flashes of brilliance in primary colors. I miss writing about stained glass. I'm kind of surprised that Iris even remembers that I've done that. It's moments like these that I realize the depth of the emotional connection to one's dissertation topic. It's taking longer to build that automatic connection with manuscripts (I still have so many questions about the period and production, I feel that I still need to be more comfortable with fundamentals) - but then, manuscripts are infinitely more accessible to me than stained glass windows. The book about stained glass and liturgical drama is still there, but it can't happen until the kids are older and I can spend weeks on end on sight. C'est la vie. And I am grateful that so many manuscripts are digitized (thank you, Bibliothèque Nationale, thanks you Bodleian Library, and many others).

Interestingly, it's the work I've done teaching medieval literature that's made me the most comfortable with secular manuscript images. I've always liked the underdog (stained glass really took a hit with painting's ascendance (and the primacy of the singular artist) during the 17th century), and with secular manuscript illumination, I like confronting the widely-held belief that the images are illustrations (either right or wrong, good or bad) of the text (meaning that the text is the most important thing). But Michael Camille made the best argument ever in "Seeing and Reading: Some Visual Implications of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy," (Art History 8 (1985): 26-49) - that medieval text and image both were secondary, or at the very least removed, from the most vivid communication, that of speech. The live voice, the speech act, the performance of text, be it holy or secular. I miss him so much for those productive frameworks he gave us. There's lots more I'd like to write here about how this book on ethics and aesthetics in the images of the late-medieval manuscripts of Louise de Savoie is shaping up, but I'm actually getting some good writing done, so will save it for when it's a bit coherent. The goal is two chapters and a table of contents - still waiting for coherence, but some connections are being made.

The image I have up here is pulled from one of Louise's manuscripts of Ovid's Heroïdes, newly translated into French in 1496 by Octavien de Saint-Gelais who had served in her court until 1494 when he entered holy orders. (By the time he translated the Heroïdes, he was the bishop of Angoulême - a bishop translating Ovid love letter: you have to love the Middle Ages!). You'll see that she has her emblem, the black wing (a little joke on the first letter of her name "L" - pronounced "elle" in French, very close to the French word for wing, which is "aile" - jokes abounding here!), all over the page - all over every illuminated page, actually.

The enormous projects of translations of works of antiquity commissioned by the French aristocracy is itself fascinating: wanting to move Ovid into French, i.e. spoken French, as these would have been read aloud as well as silently. What especially intrigues me about these images are their emphasis on travel: most of the women write from a desk near a window (and no, that's not just the realism of a culture without electricity, it's also a fascinating artistic choice), and that window frames a proto-Renaissance landscape where there are ships (usually containing lovers) going. Louise was very involved in the call to crusade of 1517, as was François Ier, working quite closely with Pope Leo X, and I want to trace, through images like these, the representation of this yearning for Jerusalem. We need to ask why Louise had this translated collection, and how these images and meditation on longing and yearning for a distant love engaged with the highly emotional rhetoric of reconquering Jerusalem. Highly emotional and, with hindsight, tragically sentimental. But even if you might think that the Crusades were so over by the 16th century (Christians had lost their last military foothold in the region in 1291 for goodness's sake), remember that Christopher Columbus himself wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella that the riches of the New World might be used to finance another Crusade to win back Jerusalem (Ferdinand and Isabella politely declined and decided to keep the riches of the New World for themselves). OK, this kind of stream of consciousness writing is way too much fun for me, way too torturous for any dear friends and family that might be reading this. Onwards!

How about a beautiful manuscript illumination of a leprechaun from a contemporary artist? He's up and coming and really dear, loves Harry Potter and really loves leprechauns. The song that his leprechaun sings (when squeezed) has becomes the kids' lullaby at night - he plays that thing 4 or 5 times before Eleanor finally calls out "I'm tired!" :-) He says that tomorrow he's going to take this drawing in and try to figure out what the knowledge is of leprechauns around here. (I still say they're "korrigans" but with a different accent and snappier clothes). Didn't make it into the marble-playing circle today at recess, but vowed to try again tomorrow. This leprechaun has it all, doesn't he? Pot o' gold, rainbow, shamrocks, and quite the hat. I know that it's completely futile to have this thought, but I can't help but wonder of what François and his sister Marguerite d'Angoulême daydreamed of long before he was king and she was an acclaimed writer, when their mother was giving them their moral education via Ovid and the Bible, sending their teacher off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and commissioning works about virtues, indeed having those works dedicated to them (Marguerite got Prudence, François got Force). Of stained glass and korrigans, perhaps, after a trip to Brittany?

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