Minuscule Arts. Mediating between Spirits and Souls

Minuscule Mediators 01

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Entry into Jerusalem, 11th century (abt 1045-1060) Armenian Miniature. Areg Village, Gospel fragment.
Entry into Jerusalem, 11th century (abt 1045-1060)
Armenian Miniature. Areg Village (near Talin), Gospel fragment.

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It’s a Miniature. It’s small, and it’s beautiful. The word ‘Illumination’, available to categorize this kind of work is quite appropriate. Made in an Armenian Monastry far away in the Black Mountains of Cappadocia. Around 1055, to illustrate a Gospel manuscript. One out of sixteen and extremely rare. After the Muslims conquered Armenia , as Dickran Kouymjian noted, they “are left over as virtually the only artistic or cultural remains originating from this entire area prior to the thirteenth century”. ¹

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Illuminated manuscripts of the time come in two modes: Elegant, monarchic and plain provincial. Obviously this one is a provincial edition. It is written on paper, not on a more expensive heavy vellum. There is no gold leafing in the open spaces, it shows the plain parchment in the background. And the same scribe who did his daily monk’s job in copying the Gospel texts, also devoted some time to work out a copy of this illumination.

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The parchment shows some of his preparations: the traces of vertical and horizontal lines, forming a pattern of squares, half a thumbnail in size, made with a silver needle. The rectangle on the right, dark brown surrounded by ocre posts is marked with parallel horizontal strokes that do fit with the other, hardly visible needle lines covering all of the illumination. Half a thumb high. The faces in the knot of disciples are twice that size. In real life face and body are measured in palms. So there is a correspondence: 1 thumb : 2 palms, at least for the human figure. The face and body of Jesus himself is one thumb larger than life. As required by mediaeval courtesy: the respectful one thumbs up for an overlord.

The same practice can be found in Carolingian Manuscripts. Here the preparatory rastering of a manuscript page extends into the text page. Writing is drawing alphabetic figures in a sequence of blocks. In the same way as I learned writing in the first class of my primary school in 1945. Even the blackboard in front of our class was covered with squares. Like us at that time, a monk did not really have the ability to read his writing. Like us, perfect but possibly fairly illiterate copyists.

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What do we see here? We see Jesus and his disciples, about to enter the town. To the left there is a crowned and bearded king on his knees with, I would guess, two disciples taking care of him. Who is he? Herod? Unlikely. King David, who built the Temple? Quite likely. A special occasion he wouldn’t care to miss. There are historic moments when kings are allowed to glide trough worm holes.

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Jesus is shown as a baldheaded as a man of great wisdom should be. May he shows some likeness with the abbot of this orthodox monastry, high up in the Black Mountains of Cappadocia.

The woman on the right of Jesus carries a child on her shoulders. The child is a bearded too, as the knotted disciples. Probably because the copyist decided to draw the faces all at once from the only face example, the modello on the desk in front of him. Well, two modellos: the baby is as baldheaded as Jesus. A wise boy.

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Artificial as this scene might look, despite its constructedness, its inconsistencies,  it is to me, an alien observer, the real thing. I cannot just look at this assemblage of objects, it invites me to read it. In a way, this illumination, like the other fifteen in the collection, feels like a text, not a sequence of words but of images. I read Jerusalem, the King, Jesus and his party, the woman in blue, and all that composed in two lines.

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From the more romantic Roman Gospels we have learned that Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. Here, it’s probably due to an orthodox tradition, that ass is missing. Correctly I think, not an essential reading. But still, it’s like seeing a Picasso for the first time. What’s going on there  ? One eye missing!

For those who might wonder if this is really Jerusalem, see the scribble in the right top corner, Emº , for E[rusaghe]m.

So take notice of the Church of the Holy Sepulchur behind the front gate of the walls. Of all the things to be seen, this is definitely the one the most near to reality. As it was drawn by the surveyors of the Holy Land, sent out by Charlemagne, to provide him with a street map of Jerusalem. Perhaps – in this case – around 1055, the abott of the Areg Monastery went on pilgrimage there.  Of course, as an alien visitor, I am quite willing to neglect that this church was built a few ages after the death of our Lord.

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When we look at this picture, we should be aware that we travel to a cosmos situated in a totally different framing of time and location. Important historical events lik the Entry of Jesus in Jerusalem are defined by grouping well known related objects around the focal object: a Palm Leaf, yes, its Easter time; Jerusalem, yes, that’s the city with the walls, and the Grave of the Lord Jesus; and the disciples, yes, that’s that pack behind him; and that woman in blue: a woman in blue, as we all know, that’ Maria. And Maria, she’s always with her child. And even as a child, he was full of wisdom, so he’s baldheaded like a man of wisdom, like our abott. And there is King David, builder of the Temple; that was destroyed, so there’s an empty space inside the Walls. An Event has te be well defined, as the time and place where lots of things come together. It was Easter in Jerusalem.

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The free wanderings crossing distant timelines, alleys and backyards, is common practice also in some modern philosophies of painting. Pablo Picasso depicted in his painting of Guernica a mixture of people dead and alive, buildings both destroyed and upright, all within one frame. Objects installed in a Window, the Collection defining an Event. Very similar to the fabric of this illumination. Picasso also assorted his Guernica objects in an arrangement of two panels, as hieroglyphs, as a story to be read from left to right, then go to the next line, and continue to read from left to right again.

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The mysterious rectangle on the right, is it a gate into the city? A grave? A reminder of his ressurection? My reading skills are in need of improvement.

The two lines of text, disguised as images, can be seen as a populated frontline (Jesus and disciples) and a building constructions backline (The Walls of Jerusalem). A simple of perspective but absolutely acceptable for the viewer, and the print maker, in a time where an engineer like Leonardo da Vinci was not yet available.

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There’s no doubt that readers in Armenia in the eleventh Century when looking at this Illumination would see a depht, a third dimension, and find their brains activated accordingly, where we – habituated differently, would tend to miss the point: As flat as primitive art. Where’s the vanishing point? Where’s the horizon? Well, for the contemporaries the vanishing point is there, and the horizon. In order fur us to see it too, we have to acknowledge that people living around 1050 were not imprisoned in a three-dimensional cage, but in a cosmos with more than three dimensions. They could see a world above the skies of Jerusalem, above the firmament with the sun, the moon and the stars, travel along a fourth dimension, reaching out to to the Heavens. The intermediate cosmic sphere between firmament and heaven, the world of the spirits, the dead souls, the Purgatory with their ancestors, was – under proper conditions – in an intensely focussed mind, in a contemplative, meditative spirit, accessible, almost within view, and open for two-way communication.

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Our habituation to a three-dimensional image of the world around us, invalidates our capacity to see, to recognize, of a fourth dimension. Of course the word fourth dimension is somewhat arbitrary. But the road to heaven is seen as a relocation both in space and in time.

And definitely it is a dimension that everybody up to the fourteenth of fifteenth century would look for when confronted with an image, and not fail to notice. At least when it comes to pictures of a religious, devout nature. And now, look at this miniature again, below, an enlargement, the same knot of Jesus and his disciples, in front. Minuscules, faces, looking at you. Everything has become transparent, spirits all around. Once upon a time, artists were really in business as ghostwriters.

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Minuscules Entry Raster Laag 3_1
The Minuscules. Souls and Spirits in the fourth dimension. They are, well, everywhere. In big numbers. To the right, faces and faces looking at you in the Border Frame. Next, up and down the down in the rectangle, in the black center as well as in the orange border, yes, they are waiting for you to see them and say hello, to begin with. In the palm leaf in Jesus’ hand. In his face! Is that my grandfather? On everybody’s mantle. On the boy’s naked skin. And then, anyone who has been thinking that the background was a plain white parchment, now, after looking in full concentration we see the souls packed up. They must appreciate having no bodies to twist around, there’s room for all. I was able to enlarge this Illumination up to 400%. Above that, the picture is pixelated. I used an large glass lense for closer inspections. Countless faces. No guessing about their numbers. Monks’ work @ Ad Teulings

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It is quite surprising to note that the concept of Illumination in Medieval Manuscripts has radically changed over time. To date, perfectly synchronous with the installation of the Reformation in the 16th century; with the formal, even brutal Abolition of an Image language and the formal inauguration of an exclusively legitimate Word language.

Illuminations, once a concept to indicate specifically to the Image content of Manuscripts, the scenic and rhetoric illustrations, became an overarching category, so as to include text elementa, decorative initials and drolleries as well.

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The concept of Illumination is dismantled of its spiritual meaning: the image as a wormhole passage to a spiritual world. Of its function as the prime mediator, bringing the reader in contact with an unseen world well above the firmament, the visible expansion of the skies, the sun, the moon and the stars, to an outer world, one more sphere up, where the souls resided, in their big Purgatory whirlpool, waiting to become cleansed, steamed up, purified, and finally – infinitesimally lightened – to be adopted in the Heavens. Or to condense again, as a heavy body reborn on the surface of the earth.

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Spiritual mediation was seen a two-way road. The spirits, the souls of loved ones, grandparents remembered, were looking down from above the skies, following the living, protecting, helping them out when in need, or assisting with their wisdom and serenity.

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The earthlings looked up, consulted their icons. Kneeled in meditation, absorbed their Iconic Illuminations, and then, it could take some time, but surely, they would start to see their spirits come forward, send them their prayers, so that their soul cleansing process would receive the additional energy, bringing them closer to heaven. And, in return, the souls up there, would send a favour down to earth in return. Extended Love, Cleaning and Healing, not a bad deal at all. Even the critical intellectuals like Arnon Grunberg will tell you that in the end that’s all they’re longing for.

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Miniscules Entry Level 3 Souls and Spirits
Minuscules, Souls and Spirits

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Notes:

¹ Dickran Kouymjian, Index of Armenian Art (IAA), Illuminated Armenian Manuscripts of the 11th Century, (Fresno: Armenian Studies Program, 1979).