Images, icons, and texts: illustrated English literary works from the Ruthwell Cross to the Ellesmere Chaucer




Hilmo, Maidie

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Illustrations accompanying medieval literary works have often been disparaged as “crude” or judged as inaccurate “translations” of the text. These determinations, based on modern expectations of what constitutes good “art,” indicate how we judge past value systems according to those of the present. In the Middle Ages, concepts about the function and the subject matter of art derive from the theology of the Incarnation and are realized in illustrated English vernacular productions even in the late medieval period. Because God became man, the reasoning went, images could be made of his human form. Images manifest the Incarnation and suggest divinity. Incarnational theology is, to a greater or lesser degree, the basis for the images in early and late medieval English poetic works. Several significant illustrations examined in this thesis help to illuminate incarnational theology and suggest the goal of life's pilgrimage for the medieval reader. This study clarifies for the first time a major critical misunderstanding about the relationship of the inscribed vernacular poem and the main sculpted panel of the Ruthwell Cross to show that the triumphant divinity and suffering humanity of Christ are featured in both. Fascination with the power of the Incarnate Word is also highlighted in the Cædmon Manuscript, which recreates Genesis from a late Anglo-Saxon historical perspective. A new interest in biblical authors led, in the thirteenth century, to the first author portrait of an English poet, that of the inspired Layamon, shown at work within the historiated initial at the beginning of the Brut. The first miniature in the early fourteenth-century Auchinleck Manuscript makes the distinction between a pagan idol and the image of the Incarnate Christ on a crucifix. Responding to the image controversies provoked by the iconopbobia of the Lollards in the late fourteenth century, the Vernon Manuscript miniatures prove the efficacy of devotion to holy images while the Pearl Manuscript's visual prefaces and epilogues, which do not portray divine figures directly, nevertheless create a metatextual narrative of the journey to the New Jerusalem. The decorative features of the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales aestheticize the penitential way to the Jerusalem celestial for its aristocratic audience and present Chaucer as a literary icon for their edification. Close attention to all parts of these works shows that the visual elements operate together with the words to incarnate the “text” for the medieval reader.



English literature, Early modern, 1500-1700, Illustrations, Illustration of books, 15th century