The personification of Wisdom in medieval art is usually grouped with other virtues, such as Justice, Hope, Prudence, Chastity, Poverty, Courage and Fortitude. While she works in communion with these sisters, she also performs her own distinct role. As the story goes, Wisdom was created by God before the world existed and is therefore in the position to offer humanity knowledge that will lead to its salvation. When Wisdom speaks in the Book of Proverbs, it is often to highlight her own importance and power. She calls herself a font of knowledge and a righteous helper who will reward those who follow her instructions. Wisdom says,
“By me kings reign and lawgivers decree just things. By me princes rule and the mighty decree justice. I love them that love me, and they that in the morning early watch for me shall find me. With me are riches and glory, glorious riches and justice….” [Proverbs 8.15–18 (Douay-Rheims Bible)]
This reward of Wisdom manifests in two ways: not only does she assist in saving the souls of those who heed her message, but she also has the authority to grant earthly power to individual rulers. The Index of Medieval Art records several scenes in biblical and secular narratives in which the virtue of Wisdom is a central character. Some relevant subjects in the Index include Christ: praising God’s Wisdom; Personification: Holy Wisdom; Personification: Celestial Beatitudes; and Holy Ghost: Gifts; and in narratives, Pèlerinage: Scene, Wisdom with Aristotle; Confessio Amantis: Scene, Darius, Sultan of Persia, seeking Wisdom, and De Consolatione Philosophiae: Scene, Wisdom showing Boethius Vision of Heaven.
In some Semitic languages, the word we translate as wisdom literally meant to restrain oneself from evil, suggesting a conscious desire to avoid sin. Thus, a sinful individual cannot approach Wisdom, as illustrated in a Romanesque miniature on folio 11r in the Stammheim Missal made in Hildesheim [Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 64 (97.MG.21)]. Flanked by David and Abraham, a crowned Wisdom (Sapientia) is positioned beneath the half figure of Christ. Here she is in direct contact with the divine as she supports with raised hands the arc of heaven, the traditional separator of realms. In a sense, she has become a gatekeeper and mediator for Christ. Surrounded by earthly men, including Zechariah and Patriarch Jacob, Wisdom can also be seen as a kind of “ladder” to heaven, since her upright body forms an important link to the promise of salvation.
Wisdom’s spiritual authority is exemplified by a scene on folio 239v of the De consolatione philosophiae of Boethius, which shows her leading the Roman philosopher to God’s throne (New York, Morgan Library, M.396). They enter through a side door of the throne room, positioning Wisdom once again as the route to the divine.
However, Wisdom also bore earthly authority, mentoring influential individuals such as Solomon, the Old Testament king of Israel and the traditional author of the biblical Book of Wisdom. This relationship is illustrated within an initial P (New York, Morgan Library, M.791). Against an ethereal gold burnished background, a veiled Wisdom crowns Solomon as a sign that she is at the root of his authority. By Wisdom—and by way of Wisdom—Solomon enacts what is so eloquently echoed in the verse of Proverbs: he will enjoy elevated status owing to the receipt of spiritual gifts; his reign is received in righteousness; and his rule is just.
This guest blog post was written by Rachel Dutaud, a summer student assistant at the Index of Medieval Art and a recent graduate in Art History and Ancient History from the University of St. Andrews. Over the 2017-18 academic year, Rachel will be working toward her MA degree in Archives & Records Management at University College Dublin. Her interests are medieval art history, iconography of female rulers, classicism, and archives.
One of the little thrills those us who do academic research get to enjoy — whether we specialize in the arts and humanities or engineering and sciences — is when our favorite topics come up in films or on television. Imagine the excitement for anyone who studies Andalusian architecture when the quasi-medieval show “Game of Thrones” received rare permission to film inside the beautiful Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.
Now perhaps it will come as no surprise that several of us here at the Index of Medieval Art are looking forward to the next series of “Doctor Who” — and the premiere of the first female Doctor (to be played by Jodie Whittaker)! — when the Doctor’s complicated history with historical accuracy resumes. For those of you regrettably unfamiliar with “Doctor Who,” it is a long-running BBC show about a long-lived, possibly immortal, time-traveling alien, and history nerds are among the most avid Whovians. To understand why, just watch the episode in which Pompeii was destroyed because aliens were building a spaceship in Vesuvius! In another episode, we learned that William Shakespeare’s plays include secret spells that open portals to other parts of the universe!
In the most recent series, the episode “The Eaters of Light” took place in Scotland in the second century AD. The Ninth Roman Legion, charged with the task of defeating the “barbarians” living in ancient Scotland, disappeared without a trace. When the Doctor and his companions investigate, things get a little strange. In the second century, the Roman Empire was trying desperately to maintain control of the lands of the “Picts” who lived north of what would very soon be the site of Hadrian’s Wall. The Picts are so called because these “painted people” (Picti) are mentioned in very early medieval texts. We know almost nothing about them, other than that they were fierce warriors, they painted their bodies before battle, and they left behind large stone monuments decorated with pictographic writing.
The Index of Medieval Art has almost 250 entries for “Pictish” artwork, most of which are large stones, either stelai or crosses. The stones usually appear in pairs, and the symbols carved on them depict inanimate objects like mirrors and combs, or crescents, and other geometrical shapes, as well as animals such as horses, dogs, birds and the enigmatic “Pictish beast.” It was this Pictish beast, a creature something like a hybrid of dolphin, horse, and dragon, or even (as some have argued), the Loch Ness Monster, that was the focus of “The Eaters of Light.” The episode proposed that it was a species of lizard-like alien monster that traveled through a great stone chamber-tomb in northern Scotland. Released in order to defeat the invading imperial army, it continued eating, threatening to consume all the light in our universe. Of course!
While this episode provides a fanciful interpretation of the Pictish stone carvings, it does actually highlight a point that art historians and archaeologists have been puzzling over for more than a century — just what do these symbols mean?
The stones were classified in the early twentieth century into three types, based upon their iconography and the level of detail in their carving. Class I stones, which date roughly to the fifth to seventh centuries, are relatively plain, and have only Pictish symbols inscribed upon them. Class II stones are slightly more ornate, with more effort obviously spent on not only carving the imagery but also on decorating the shape of the stone itself. They have not only Pictish symbols, but also Christian iconography such as very simple cruciform carvings. These are thought to date to the period of the seventh to ninth centuries, when conversion to Christianity was becoming more common in the region we now know as Scotland. Finally, Class III stones, which date to the later eighth and ninth centuries, are the most ornate. Their edges are highly decorated, the shape itself has been clearly hewn from the rock rather than simply incised upon it, and they have intricate carvings of knot-work and lace-work. Apparently used not only as upright markers or crosses but also as grave slabs, all of these Class III stones have explicitly Christian imagery, with many carved in the shape of crosses. None of them bear Pictish symbols, so these stones are interpreted as a last step in the Christianization of Scotland.
There are, however, two main difficulties in interpreting these Pictish symbol stones, though there are many theories as to what they represent. First, we are not entirely sure what they were for. Scholars have debated the issue for the last half century, arguing that they were monuments marking important meeting places or boundaries, or that they were memorials to particular individuals, families, events, or even that they might have been political statements opposing the spread of Christianity in early medieval Britain. Inscriptions are not helpful for interpretation either. While ogham writing in Ireland and Wales is found on stones that include Latin inscriptions, so that each stone is like a Rosetta Stone (with the Latin inscription in each case serving as a key to interpreting the ogham text), we do not currently have such a direct method of interpreting Pictish ideograms.
The second problem is the dating. Surviving Pictish stones suggest a development from the simple, presumably pagan, Pictish animals and shapes of Class I stones to the elaborate crosses in Class III. Like much archaeological evidence from the post-Roman fifth and early-sixth centuries in Britain, this dating is often based upon our expectations affected by early medieval texts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History or Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, none of which were written in Britain in the period they describe. Unlike human or plant remains, stones cannot be radiocarbon dated. Even if we wanted to make the attempt at dating, for example, organic elements of the soil beneath the stones, only a few of the stones are actually still in situ. So the dating of the Pictish stones depends on parallels in manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow, and upon what we currently think about the history of the arrival of Christianity in Scotland. Even if we were able to determine with absolute certainty when exactly these stones were first inscribed and placed in the landscape, that account would still not consider the many succeeding generations and their many possible uses for these stones.
The Pictish stones in the Index of Medieval Art, especially the Class I stones, are part of a wider discussion of very early medieval society in Scotland. The Picts are the people that sixth-century and later texts blame for the beginning of the end of Roman Britain. Their raids along coasts to the south created defensive problems at a time when the Roman military presence in Britain was declining. Over the last fifty years or so, archaeological excavations of cemeteries in Scotland have increased our understanding of the monumental commemorations of death among the people who raised these decorated stones and crosses. The iconography on the stones that these people left behind is one of the few sources that modern scholars can work with to learn about the Picts and their world — and it also turns out to be a great source of inspiration for science fiction television.
This guest blog post was written by Janet Kay, a CLSA-Cotsen postdoctoral fellow at the Princeton Society of Fellows. She studies the history of fifth-century Britain, looking at burial practices to study a period for which there are no surviving texts. Janet uses material culture and funerary rites as primary sources to explore how fifth-century communities understood themselves and their newly-arrived neighbors from the continent and how invested they were in maintaining connections with their Roman past.
The Index invites paper proposals for two sessions at the 2018 Medieval Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, on the theme of “Iconography and Its Discontents.”
Modern scholars often express discomfort with the term “iconography,” caricaturing its study as obsessed with rigidified taxonomies, elaborate stemmae, and the abstract pursuit of textual analogues for free-floating images. Yet the fundamental questions that drive iconographic studies remain central to scholarship in art history and many other medievalist disciplines. What did a medieval image mean, and to whom? How did these meanings change in different contexts and in the eyes of different viewers, and what can this tell us about the values and practices of the society in which they were made and viewed? The ways in which researchers answer these questions, meanwhile, has changed dramatically, bolstered by new methodologies and the increasing availability of digital tools to quantify, compare, and analyze a wide range of medieval images. Such advances suggest that the study of iconography not only is “not dead yet,” but is very much alive and open to reassessment.
Our two sessions capitalize on the new vitality of current iconographic studies by gathering papers that reexamine the potential of iconographic work for medievalists, prioritizing work that pushes past traditional approaches to engage with the new questions, new methods, new disciplines, and new technologies of greatest impact within the field. Following on the centennial and digital relaunch of Princeton’s recently renamed Index of Medieval Art, one of the first and longest-lived iconographic repositories of its kind, the session aims to chart a new path in a scholarship transformed by both technological advancements and disciplinary creativity.
Session I: Iconography and/as Methodology. What questions do today’s scholars ask of medieval images, and what approaches do they take to answering them? Do their efforts represent a break with the past or a continuation of it? What disciplines do they most engage? For this panel, we invite papers that explore the impact of new methods, whether from art history or from other disciplines, on modern understanding of how medieval images did their work for their makers and viewers. Papers that assess the relevance or revision of past approaches are also welcome.
Session II: Iconography and Technology. How have digital resources transformed the ways in which scholars approach the study of medieval images and their meaning? What new questions (and answers) are now possible, and what remains the same? For this panel, we seek papers that evaluate the impact of online collections, databases, and other digital tools on image-based scholarship in any discipline. Both case studies and broader analyses are invited.
The month of June marks the passing of two historically consequential rulers: the fourth-century Roman emperor Julian, posthumously referred to as Julian the Apostate, and the twelfth-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, also known as Frederick Barbarossa. Their untimely deaths shocked the Late Antique and Medieval worlds, respectively. On June 26, 363, Julian was mortally wounded in the battle of Samarra during a Roman military campaign against the Persians. According to various sources, a spear delivered by a member of the Sassanian cavalry pierced his liver, and he subsequently died from the mortal blow some three days later. June 10, 1190, marks the day on which Frederick Barbarossa drowned in the Saleph River (the Göksu in modern Turkey) in the middle of the Third Crusade, the Latin West’s attempt to recapture the Holy Land from Saladin. The deaths of both leaders in the middle of critical military campaigns generated either anxiety or derision among their contemporaries, as underscored in subsequent medieval representations of the two emperors.
Posthumous medieval representations of Julian, the last Roman emperor who championed paganism, are almost always critical. For example, a lavishly illuminated ninth-century Byzantine manuscript of Gregory Nazianzen’s homilies (Paris, BnF, gr.510, fol. 374v), depicts the ruler accompanying the pagan philosopher Maximus of Ephesus and venerating idols. In Simone Martini’s fourteenth-century fresco cycle in the Chapel of Saint Martino within the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi, the figure of Julian the Apostate serves as an arrogant, pagan, visual foil to the saintly Martin of Tours, who is shown renouncing military life for his Christian beliefs. Depictions of Julian’s death are even more damning. By the early sixth century, accounts surrounding Julian’s death shifted away from a battle against the Persians and amplified the legend of Saint Mercurius (identified as Mercurius of Caesarea in the Index database), a Byzantine soldier saint who rises from the dead and kills the pagan emperor with his lance or sword.
Although this legend developed in Eastern sources, it grew in popularity in the Medieval Latin West, even making an appearance in Jacopo de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Golden Legend. In a fourteenth-century Christherre-Chronik miniature in the Morgan Library (New York, PML, M.769, fol. 327v), the figure of Julian is portrayed as an elderly medieval monarch lanced by a fully armored Saint Mercurius astride a galloping horse.
In contrast to the overwhelmingly uncomplimentary medieval portraits of Julian the Apostate, representations of Frederick Barbarossa generally evoke the idea of imperial majesty and power. The so-called Cappenberg head (c. 1160), a reliquary that originated as a portrait of Frederick, effectively conveys an image of grandeur and stability through its precious materials and antique visual language. Yet a miniature drawn, less than a decade after his death, in Peter of Eboli’s De Rebus Sicilis (Bern, Stadtbibliothek, 120 II, fol. 107r) betrays the unease surrounding the emperor’s accidental passing. Inscribed FREDERICUS IMPERATOR IN FLUMINE DEFUNCTUS, the drawing depicts the ruler falling off his horse and drowning in the water, his crown lying ignobly in the riverbed. As if to combat the contemporary whispers that Frederick died without confessing his sins, the illuminator purposely included an image of the ruler’s soul as a swaddled infant held aloft by an angel and given to the Hand of God emerging from heaven. In so doing, the artist was participating in a larger, concerted effort to salvage Frederick Barbarossa’s reputation for posterity as a noble and most Christian emperor.
Over the next few weeks, friends and users of the Index will see signs of our gradual shift to a new name, The Index of Medieval Art. This revision was undertaken after careful thought and consultation with Princeton faculty, students, administration, and the wider scholarly community.
The change reflects the broad evolution of our institution’s scope and mission since its founding in 1917, when its work was limited to cataloguing religious themes and subjects in early Christian art up to 700 C.E. A century later, our records have expanded to encompass both religious and secular imagery, including Jewish and Islamic works, from the first centuries of the Common Era until the sixteenth century. The scholarly activities that we support and generate have also evolved over the years, reflecting the broad interpretive and interdisciplinary analysis that has become fundamental to the study of medieval images. Our new name signals more accurately our expanded holdings, mission, and goals, as well as our institution’s broad potential to serve researchers in multiple fields of study.
If you have already bookmarked our Facebook and Twitter accounts using their original URLs, you’ll be redirected to the correct ones and shouldn’t notice an interruption. The new URLs for the sites appear below. In the coming months, we will also implement new URLs for this website and our redesigned database, which is set to launch in September 2017. We look forward to sharing news of those changes with you soon!
While the other months of the year had specific harvesting tasks associated with them, the relative ease of May was a welcome relief from the daily toil that dominated medieval life. May occupations are traditionally represented as more joyous, particularly in Books of Hours and Psalters. The Index database records over 180 scenes for May in manuscripts, and a little over half of them use the occupation of the male falconer on horseback (see related subjects: Month, Occupation: May; Figure, Male: Falconer; Horseman: Falconer; and Scene, Sports and Games: Falconer). Falconry, or Hawking, was a favorite medieval sport enjoyed especially at the beginning of spring. These hunting birds were prized for their agility and loyalty to their masters. Another popular scene depicting May is a pair of lovers on horseback, occasionally with a bird perching on the man’s wrist. This scene of a riding couple was a favored occupation and signaled the readiness for new courtships. Other instances of May scenes include figures holding flowers or wreaths, couples promenading, and other verdant scenes of courtship, whether amid blooms in grassy gardens or even on boats (see related subject: Scene, Secular: Courting).
The zodiac sign that commences in May is Gemini, traditionally represented by a pair of figures—Gemini being Latin for “twins”—that are linked to their astrological appearance in the sky (see related subjects: Zodiac Sign: Gemini and Constellation: Gemini). The representations of Gemini can also be divided into a few main categories. A sample of about 80 French medieval manuscripts reveals that the most popular Gemini sign was the embracing nude couple, with far fewer of them appearing clothed. Often the couple’s bodies are masked by parts of the landscape or are cropped by a frame. Nude twins are the second most common Gemini sign and are usually depicted as two men embracing or wrestling. Sometimes the twins will appear as confronted soldiers with mirrored weapons and gear. The twin variations in Gemini also include pairs with crossed legs, conjoined bodies, or even one figure with two heads.
The subjects for months and zodiac signs are most prevalent in manuscripts, but they are also well-represented in sculpture such as the famous façades at Chartres and Vézelay. In 2007, information on all zodiac and occupation subjects classified by the Index was collected and published with Penn State University Press as Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. This book has been hailed as a “lavishly illustrated” and “functional research tool” for studying the subject of the medieval measuring of time.
Hourihane, C., ed. Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months and Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007.
Neal, K. “Time in the Medieval World: Occupations of the Months & Signs of the Zodiac in the Index of Christian Art (review).” Parergon, vol. 25 no. 2, 2008, pp. 164-166.
From the Gospel of Matthew, 27:62-66, Douay-Rheims: And the next day…the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate, saying: Sir, we have remembered, that that seducer said, while he was yet alive: After three days I will rise again. Command therefore the sepulchre to be guarded until the third day: lest perhaps his disciples come and steal him away, and say to the people: He is risen from the dead; and the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate saith to them: you have a guard; go, guard it as you know. And they departing, made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting guards.
Of the four Evangelists, Matthew alone records the above conversation among Pilate, the chief priests and the Pharisees, the latter two being concerned that Christ would emerge from the tomb to continue stirring up the people. To which Pilate responded, well, then guard the tomb. He had already washed his hands of the matter, yet here it is again. So, just guard the tomb, and (reading between the lines) leave me out of it. This episode also appears in the apocryphal gospel of Peter, where the story follows the same thread.
Christ’s resurrection appears in the Index of Christian Art 500+ times in multiple media; the order to set the guard is represented only sixteen times. The Cambridge Miscellany (Fig. 1) presents the thread of the story well, with the text in the left column, and in the right, a miniature with two figures petitioning Pilate, above a resurrection image with soldiers.
The number of soldiers present varies. Two, three or four are common (Fig. 2); examples exist with what appear to be small armies (Fig. 3).
Largely the soldiers are sleeping, but some are awake, looking up toward the risen Christ, sometimes shielding their eyes (Fig. 4).
They wear chain mail or armor that is medieval, not Roman, which they would likely have been. Many are accompanied by weapons and shields, sometimes decorated with quasi-heraldic ornament. Some have creature comforts, such as a bolster to sit on, or a mattress to lie on (Fig. 5).
They pass the night at the tomb; they sleep even though Christ occasionally steps on them while climbing out of the tomb (Figs. 6 and 7); and they are still asleep when the three Marys, or Holy Women, arrive the next morning carrying ointment jars and sometimes censers.
Signs of “otherness” appear: a distorted face with a pig-like snout for a nose; knotted headdresses; curved swords or scimitars; dark skin (Fig. 7). The tomb itself may be a plain sarcophagus; or it may look more like a medieval shrine, with openings in the base.
Instead of pilgrims trying to get closer to the relics inside, the soldiers use those openings for cozy sleeping spaces (Fig. 8).
On May 19-20, 2017, international and US Scholars will gather at Princeton to examine the near-intact monastic treasury of San Isidoro in Leon, in northern Spain, as a springing point for larger questions about sumptuary collections and their patrons across Europe and the Mediterranean across the Middle Ages. Topics of inquiry include Islamic law and sumptuary production, Christian manuscripts and metalwork, patronage and royal studies, identity and gender studies, and cultural and political history. The diversity of questions and perspectives addressed by the speakers will shed light on the nature of Leon as a paradigmatic treasury collection, as well as on the broad efficacy of multidisciplinary study for the Middle Ages.
Follow the link below for a full schedule and (free) registration information. We hope to see you there!
In medieval terms, March 25 was about as symbolically busy as a day could get. Already noted in the Julian calendar as the date of the vernal equinox, it is identified in the Golden Legend of the chronicler and archbishop Jacopo da Voragine as the date of an unusual number of auspicious Biblical events: Adam’s and Eve’s fall into sin; Cain’s murder of Abel; Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac; Melchisidek’s offering of bread and wine to Abraham; the martyrdom of John the Baptist; the deliverance of Saint Peter; the martyrdom of Saint James the Great; and the Crucifixion. Still more strongly associated with this date was the Annunciation, at which, according to Luke 1:26-28, the archangel Gabriel brought word to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the son of God: “And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”
Gabriel’s announcement to Mary inaugurated the Christological narrative that governed all the feasts of the liturgical year, so it is unsurprising that this event should be highlighted in medieval calendars, where its proximity to the start of spring also led many to treat March 25 as the beginning of the new year.
The Annunciation is among the most consistently depicted subjects in medieval iconography; it is found in everything from early Christian catacombs and sculpted facades to books of hours, mosaics, and panel paintings. Its composition and details vary in accordance with its setting: the Virgin might appear on a throne, in a loggia, in a bedroom, or outdoors, and she often is shown spinning or reading. A variant of particular interest is the depiction of the Annunciation at the Spring (as it is catalogued in the Index), also known as the Annunciation at the Well. Inspired by accounts preserved in early apocryphal texts such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, this variant depicts the Virgin greeted by Gabriel as she is fetching water, the first of two successive meetings in which the angel delivers his news.
The Annunciation at the Spring emerged in late Antiquity and flourished in Byzantium and the visual traditions close to it. An early exemplar appears on a fifth-century plaque, possibly a book cover, now in Milan Cathedral Treasury. Here, a small square scene of the Annunciation initiates the narrative of Christ’s life; it depicts the Virgin Mary kneeling by a stream, pitcher in hand, as she looks back to receive the angel’s greeting. In a much later manuscript example, a twelfth-century Homilies of James Kokkinobaphos (Paris, BnF, MS gr. 1208, fol. 159v), two meetings are implied: at left, Mary dips her pitcher into a well as she turns to hear Gabriel’s message; at right, she approaches a house where she will receive the angel a second time.
A more dynamic version of the well scene appears in an early fourteenth-century mosaic in the Church of the Savior at Chora in Istanbul: composed on a pendentive below one of the structure’s domes, it positions the angel as a fluttering visitor who descends the curved surface to greet Mary as she teeters over the well below.
Other cultures with close ties to Byzantine traditions also adopted the Annunciation at the Spring. The scene appears among twelfth-century mosaics of the Life of the Virgin in the transept of the church of San Marco in Venice, as well as in the early fourteenth-century Armenian manuscript known as the Glazdor Gospels (Los Angeles, University of California Research Library, MS. 1, p. 305).
In the Gospels manuscript, a flattened, stylized well and pitcher offer only a vestige of the original iconography as they stand between Gabriel and the Virgin. The figures’ static postures, animated only by Gabriel’s speaking gesture and the Virgin’s raised palm, recall western Annunciation scenes, but Mary’s gilded brocade and the ogival dome at the top of the composition attest to its eastern roots.
The medieval church season of Lent officially opened with Ash Wednesday, the Wednesday after Quinquagesima Sunday (the period of fifty days before Easter). The observance of Ash Wednesday marked forty fast days before Easter, not counting Sundays. During Lent, medieval Christians were forbidden to consume meat, eggs, dairy and animal fats, except on the permitted Sundays which were viewed as a “mini-Easter.” By adding a level of restraint to their daily lives, medieval Christians fulfilled a call for penance, which was especially important during the Lenten season. On Ash Wednesday, in the Middle Ages as it is now, a celebration of Mass incorporated the distribution of blessed ashes on the foreheads of believers. When dispensing the ashes, the celebrant reminds those receiving it that “as you are from dust, from dust you shall return” (based on Genesis 3:19).
The Index records three examples in manuscript illumination of the distribution of ashes. Each begins a part of a liturgical book read for this feast: a Gradual fragment in Princeton University Library (Kane 13), a Gradual in the Morgan Library (M.933), and a Missal in the Walters Art Museum (W.174). The Morgan and Princeton Graduals begin with the same Latin Introit, “Misereris omnium domine et nichil odisti eorum…” (Thou hast mercy upon all, O Lord, and hatest nothing…). It is interesting to note that the subject heading “Scene, Liturgical: Distribution of Ashes” used by the Index now was not in the original card file but was developed sometime during the last twenty years when post-1400 material was incorporated into the Index.