Index of Medieval Art

Browsing a New Network of Medieval Iconography

Continuing a series of blog posts introducing the new features of our online database.

The Index of Medieval Art database catalogs more than 26,000 subjects. For a long time, you could explore this vast taxonomy only by browsing the subject headings in alphabetical order. To make the data more accessible, the Index has developed a Subject Classification browse tool, which allows researchers to discover Index holdings by browsing through various categories of our hierarchical classification of subjects.

In this network, subjects are grouped under five top-level headings: 

History

Nature

Religious Subjects

Society and Culture

Symbol, Concept, and Ornament

By browsing the contents of these categories, researchers can learn more about Index subjects as grouped by theme. Researchers interested in the “History” category, for example, will encounter individual subjects, such as the names of historical figures and their associated scenes within a medieval society, grouped under classifications such as “Heraldry,” “Donors,” “Founders,” and “Nobility.” Other groups in this category include “Those Who Pray” (including representations of religious clergy, pilgrims, missionaries, hermits and heretics), “Those Who Fight” (with admirals, generals, officers, etc.), “Those Who Rule” (with emperors, empresses, doges, despots, prefects, etc.), and “Those Who Work” (including medieval occupations by type, such as philosophers, physicians, and scholars).

The category “Religious Subjects” contains diverse subject matter, mainly figures and scenes, but also objects and rituals, not only for the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but also for several other ancient religions, such as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology. The unsurprisingly large iconographic groups for the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin Mary, which include the names of individual biblical figures and saints as well as biblical scenes, live in this part of the network and represent a wealth of catalogued examples in the database. Under “Religious Subjects,” biblical scenes are also grouped by their numbered books and chapters. These classifications allow researchers who are broadly interested in the iconography from a biblical source, such as the Genesis narrative, to access “Biblical Books” then “Genesis, Book,” and then go to a specific category. For example, the category “Genesis, Chapter 04” lists subjects of related figures and scenes appearing in Genesis 4, such as those for Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel. Each biblical book with associated iconography in the database can be browsed for associated subject headings, including the subjects for the Psalms (following the Vulgate numbering 1–150). Researchers pursuing iconography related to texts other than the Bible will want to browse the “Literature and Legends” category, accessed from “Non-Biblical Texts” under “Society and Culture,” which contains subjects relating to the Trojan War, the Aeneid, the Legend of the Argonauts, and Arthurian Legend, among others.

Subjects contained in “Genesis, Chapter 04,” accessed from “Genesis, Book,” “Biblical Books,” and “Religious Subjects” within the Index of Medieval Art database Subject Classification network.

The “Society and Culture” category contains a wide variety of subject terms for representations of medieval daily life. Here you will find types of work, garments, objects, utensils, musical instruments, and furniture that the Index has identified in medieval works of art, plus an array of occupational activities, such as travel, sports, eating and feasting, and hunting scenes. Exploring the category “Sports and Games” might yield unexpected names of pastimes enjoyed in the Middle Ages. Subject terms for games such as “Chess” or “Draughts” are familiar, but others, such as “Whirligig,” might invite a deeper look.

Bas-de-page scene of couple playing chess or draughts in the Queen Mary Psalter, ca. 1310. The subject classifications for both games can be found in the network under “Society and Culture > Human Activities > Sports and Games.” (London, British Library, MS. Roy.2.B.VII, fol. 198v).
Upper margin depicting figures playing with whirligigs on the June calendar page the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, ca. 1500. The subject classification for this game can be found in the network under “Society and Culture > Human Activities > Sports and Games.” (Morgan Library, MS. M.52, fol. 4v).

The “Nature” category is a treasure trove for anyone interested in medieval representations of animals, plants, geography, and astronomy. Here you will also find fascinating mythological creatures and hybrid figures alongside visualizations of the seasons, climate, and natural disasters. The “Symbol, Concept, and Ornament” category contains subjects for the more abstract topics in the Index collection. It currently organizes representations of allegories by name and personifications by type, including human characters for the arts, nature, places, time, virtues and vices. This category also includes maps and diagrams, monograms of individual figures, and various kinds of figured, floreate, and foliate ornament.

Fourth-century bone ring carved with the “Monogram of Chi Rho (Closed Rho)” in the Musée de l’Arles antique. The subject classification can be found in “Monogram” under “Symbol, Concept, and Ornament.”

More a network than a strict hierarchy, the Subject Classification tool is designed to be flexible in its groupings, because the Index of Medieval Art recognizes that medieval iconography does not always fit into predetermined categories or may fit into many categories. For example, Charlemagne, the Carolingian King of the Franks and later Emperor of the Romans was also revered as a saint in some locations, so he appears in multiple parts of the network, including:

History > Historical Figures > Those Who Rule > Emperors A–C > Charlemagne

History > Historical Figures > Those Who Rule > Kings C–D > Charlemagne

Religious Subjects > Christianity > Saints > Saints A–Z > Saints C > Charlemagne

When clicking on the lowest-level subject heading, in this case “Charlemagne,” a new page will appear displaying this subject heading’s authority record. The authority record provides an array of useful information, including a Note field at the top offering a definition of the subject, or biographical details, followed by expandable fields containing select bibliographic citations, External References (cross-references to other authorities) and See Froms (alternative names and spellings of the subject). At the bottom of each subject authority is the Associated Works of Art field, an expandable field containing links to all the medieval works of art that feature this iconography.

The authority record’s Subject Classifications field presents the lowest network category, or categories, to which the subject belongs. In the example of “Charlemagne,” it is the name of the individual figure. In other instances, the Subject Classifications for a particular subject might appear on the authority as a broader grouping term. For example, the subject authority for “Drinking Horn” will use the subject classification “Utensils and Objects D–H,” and the subject for “Robin” will use the classification “Birds H–Z.” As noted in the example for biblical books, the subject classifications can also contain names of textual sources, including legends and other narratives.

Subject authority for “Charlemagne” in the Index of Medieval Art database.

The evolution of the Subject Classification tool is ongoing, allowing for continuous discovery by both those who use it and those who are building it. As branches of the network spread, new and surprising associations emerge, revealing the richness of the Index’s subject taxonomy. We hope you will enjoy browsing the iconographic headings with this new database tool, which is openly accessible to anyone who visits the browse page of the Index of Medieval Art database.


The Index of Medieval Art Subject Classifications comprises a browsable network that organizes and associates subject terms from our vast taxonomy of medieval iconography. These classifications are descriptive and not prescriptive of medieval works of art cataloged into the Index collection. What follows is an outline of the top three levels of classifications to give Index researchers the broadest overview of subject content.

History

            Heraldry

                        Heraldic Symbols

                        Heraldry of Miscellaneous Figures and Families

                        Identified Heraldry A–Z

                        Legendary Heraldry A–Z

            Historical Figures

                        Donors A–Z

                        Founders A–Z

                        Nobility

                        Those Who Fight

                        Those Who Pray

                        Those Who Rule

                        Those Who Work

Nature

            Animals

                        Birds A–Z

                        Hunting and Other Scenes

                        Insects and Invertebrates

                        Mammals A–Z

                        Marine Creatures

                        Reptiles and Amphibians

            Astronomy and Astrology

                        Constellations

                        Planets and Other Celestial Objects

                        Sun and Moon

                        Zodiac

            Geography and Geology

                        Landscape

                        Minerals and Gems

                        Mountains

                        Natural Elements

                        Rivers

                        Sea and Ocean

                        Weather and Natural Disasters

            Mythological Creatures and Hybrids

                        Animal Hybrids

                        Hybrid Figures

                        Mythological and Religious Creatures

            Plants

                        Plants and Flowers A–Z

                        Trees and Their Fruits A–Z

            Time

                        Months

                        Seasons

                        Times of the Day

Religious Subjects

            Biblical Books

                        Genesis, Book–Maccabees, Book

                        Matthew, Book–Apocalypse, Book

            Christianity

                        Angels and Devils

                        Christian Legends

                        Christian Objects and Rituals

                        Christian Religious Orders and Offices

                        Death and Afterlife

                        Divine Manifestations

                        Images and Attributes of Christ

                        Life of Christ

                        Life of the Virgin Mary

                        New Testament Apocrypha

                        New Testament Figures

                        Old Testament Apocrypha

                        Old Testament Figures

                        Saints

                        Types of the Virgin Mary

            Greek and Roman Mythology

                        Mythological Figures A–Z

                        Mythological Narratives

            Islam

                        Muslim Objects and Rituals

                        The Life of Muhammad

            Judaism

                        Jewish Biblical Figures and Narratives

                        Jewish Objects and Rituals

            Other Ancient Religions

                        Egyptian Deities

                        Gnosticism

                        Mithraism

                        Zoroastrianism

Society and Culture

            Architecture

                        Cities A–Z

                        Identified Buildings A–Z

                        Models of Buildings and Cities

                        Unidentified Buildings and Structures A–Z

            Drollery

                        Drolleries and Grotesques

            Figure Types

                        Ethnic, National, Religious, and Social Types

                        Figure Types A–Z

                        Human Hybrids

                        Hybrid Figures

                        Imaginary Figures

                        Labors of the Month

                        Months

            Furniture

                        Bed, Bench, Lectern, Throne, etc.

            Garments and Accessories

                        Hats, Headgear, Jewelry, etc.

            Human Activities

                        Eating and Feasting

                        Hunting and Other Scenes

                        Medicine and Medical Practices

                        Occupational A–Z

                        Social Activities

                        Sports and Games

                        Travel and Commerce

            Non-Biblical Texts

                        Literature and Legends

            Objects and Rituals

                        Christian Objects and Rituals

                        Jewish Objects and Rituals

                        Muslim Objects and Rituals

            Utensils and Objects

                        Musical Instruments A–Z

                        Utensils and Objects A–Z

            Warfare

                        Arms and Armor

                        Military Figures

                        Military Scenes

Symbol, Concept, and Ornament

            Allegories and Personifications

                        Allegories

                        Personifications of Arts

                        Personification of Christological, Symbolic, and Literary Concepts A–Z

                        Personifications of Nature

                        Personifications of Places

                        Personifications of Time

                        Personifications of Vices

                        Personifications of Virtues

            Maps and Diagrams

                        Alchemical, Alphabetical, Geometric, Astronomical Diagrams, etc. and Maps

            Monogram

                        Monograms of Individual Figures A–Z and Symbols

            Ornament

                        Animal, Figured, Floreate, and Foliate Ornament

The Index at Kalamazoo 2021

Attending the 56th International Congress on Medieval Studies this year? Please join us for the two IMA-sponsored sessions on Wednesday, May 12th

Man and woman talking through wall, other figures in conversation
Story of Pyramus and Thisbe, detail from an ivory casket by the Embriachi Workshop, 1390-1410 (Victoria & Albert Museum, 5624:&2-1859)

190 Wednesday, May 12, 11:00 a.m. EDT: Location, Location, Location: In-Situ Iconography within the Medieval Built Environment I: Topography and Threshold

Location, Performance, History: The West Façade of Wells Cathedral Reconsidered

Matthew M. Reeve, Queen’s University

Of Columns and Column Saints: Architectural Appropriation at Qal’at Sim’an

Laura H. Hollengreen, University of Arizona

“Bearing Witness Then as Now”: Iconography and Epigraphy in the Latin Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Megan Boomer, Columbia University

The Lives of Cats, Eels, and Monks on an Irish High Cross

Dorothy Verkerk, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill

__________________________________

200 Wednesday, May 12, 1:00 p.m. EDT: Location, Location, Location: In-Situ Iconography within the Medieval Built Environment II: The Interior Space

“Feet of Clay”: The Significance of Media and Iconography in Thirteenth-Century English Architectural Interiors

Amanda R. Luyster, College of the Holy Cross

Transfiguring Frescoes: Framing Panel Paintings in Italian Medieval Mural Decoration

Alexis Wang, Columbia University

Folding and Archiving Monumental Images: Bertha’s Tablecloth for the Cathedral in Lyon (Ninth Century)

Vincent Debiais, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris

New Online Submission Process and Hybrid Publication Model for Studies in Iconography

As of April 1, 2021, the Index-hosted journal Studies in Iconography has shifted to an online submission process, beginning with submissions for volume 43 (2022). Prospective authors may submit their manuscripts on our new Scholarworks site and will find further information both there and in the editorial policies and guidelines section of the IMA website. In addition, beginning with vol. 42 the journal’s annual volumes will be published both in print and online through Scholarworks, a shift that is hoped will increase their reach and accessibility.

Masthead for Studies in Iconography

Studies in Iconography is an annual journal hosted by the Index of Medieval Art and published in partnership with Medieval Institute Publications. Co-edited by Pamela A. Patton and Diliana Angelova, it presents innovative work on the meaning of images from the medieval world broadly construed, between the fourth century to the year 1600. Past and current articles have addressed subjects as diverse as Byzantine fresco programs, Carolingian architectural diagrams, Gothic rent books, Jewish ritual images, Islamicate stucco ornament, and early modern portraiture. We especially encourage article submissions that offer interdisciplinary, theoretical, or critical perspectives, and works of both established and emerging scholars are welcome. Reviews of selected books on iconography and art history are included in every volume.

Inquiries about matters outside the online submission process may be directed to Fiona Barrett, fionab@princeton.edu.

For information about pricing, subscriptions, or back issues, please consult https://wmich.edu/medievalpublications/journals/iconography.

Index Database Update Improves User Experience and Accessibility

The Index of Medieval Art has completed a systemwide update aimed at making the database both more user-friendly and fully compliant with current accessibility standards. Launched April 1, the update includes the following improvements:

  • A new Welcome page with streamlined information and a gallery of featured works of art;
  • New Search options, including a basic search level that enables multiple filters to combine with a Quick (keyword) Search;
  • A more appealing and navigable Browse page;
  • A streamlined, more intuitive Subject Classification network;
  • A redesigned results page that works more smoothly with search filters;
  • A redesigned Work of Art page that prioritizes the information of greatest interest to most researchers;
  • Tools and standards that meet current Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

We encourage researchers to explore the updated site, making use of the new Help pages linked on the Welcome page. As always, we welcome your research inquiries and feedback.

Screen capture of the new Index database welcome screen

Baseball’s Medieval Origins Confirmed

We might consider baseball as American as apple pie. Popular legend ascribes its invention to Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York, while historians of the sport point out that a similar game was played in North America as early as the late eighteenth century. Some, however, have hypothesized that the game had earlier roots in two early modern English games, rounders and cricket.

monks and nuns playing a ball game
Bas-de-page detail from the Romance of Alexander, 1338–1410 (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264), fol. 22r.

Yet there is evidence to suggest that baseball has far deeper historical roots, reaching back to the Middle Ages. The marginal decoration of a fourteenth-century French manuscript now in Oxford’s Bodleian Library (MS. 264) includes what may be the earliest conclusive illustrations of the game, played here by a group of nuns and monks. The nun at left has caught the ball just after the monk at bat has swung and missed. The monk turns to argue the count as two monks and two nuns in the infield raise their hands, ready to field, in a classic example of what Otto Pächt has called “simultaneous narrative.” The absence of outfielders in the scene was surely the result of artistic economy, given the limited space afforded by the gilded floral and foliate border, a decorative form that perhaps inspired the much later planting of ivy on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field, where players still contend with limited space.

The representation of the game’s players as cloistered religious figures offers a note of accuracy, as French nuns are in fact the earliest recorded players of the game that they called le base-bal. As early as the twelfth century, the nuns of the Abbey of Fontevraud in particular had established a reputation for their high on-base percentage and daring in run-downs; a certain Wilgefortis is lauded in conventual records for her lusty swing and reliability in the clutch. Barnstorming throughout the Loire valley, the Fontevraud nuns found the women of other convents eager to meet them between the lines, although the same could not be said of the monks and canons they challenged, most of whom refused to play, claiming the women “couldn’t throw.” The mixed-gender matchup depicted in the fourteenth-century Bodleian manuscript reflects a later era, when the dominance of the Fontevraud lineup had faded into distant memory and monks became more willing to test their skills against their slugging sorores.

Conventual baseball faded in Europe in the sixteenth century as reformers like Martin Luther turned popular opinion against the “devil’s game,” describing it as a gateway to luxury and vice and also complaining that the action was “too slow.” Today, it is only pictorial traces like that in Bodleian 264 that preserve the vibrant medieval traditions that gave us “America’s pastime.”

The Index and Penn State University Press Launch New Book Series “Signa: Papers of the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University”

We are pleased to announce the publication of the first book in the new series “Signa: Papers of the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University,” co-published with Penn State University Press. The new volume, The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography, is co-edited by Pamela A. Patton and Henry D. Schilb and includes contributions from Kirk Ambrose, Charles Barber, Catherine Fernandez, Elina Gertsman, Jacqueline E. Jung, Dale Kinney, and D. Fairchild Ruggles. Congratulations and thank you to all our authors!

The second volume in the series, Beyond the Crossroads: Image, Meaning, and Method in Medieval Art, is currently in production.

Medieval Iconography of Saturn and Jupiter for a Great Planetary Alignment

By Jove! This year a special planetary alignment will occur on December 21st, also­­ the Winter Solstice, when earth’s northern pole is at its greatest tilt away from the Sun. During this “Longest Night,” the planets Saturn and Jupiter will be within a tenth of a degree to one another, appearing to form a single “star.”

While an alignment of Saturn and Jupiter happens about every 20 years, when it happens in 2020 it will be one of the closest alignments of these two planets for over 800 years, and by some accounts since the year 1226.[1] The 1226 Saturn-Jupiter conjunction coincided with several historical milestones. In France, the reign of Louis IX, the only French king to be canonized by the Catholic Church, began following the death of his father Louis VIII. In Norway, the cleric Brother Robert translated the popular chivalric romance of Tristan and Iseult into Old Norse at the request of King Haakon IV. In the Kingdom of Georgia, the Sultan Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, captured Tbilisi in the Battle of Garni. The mendicant friar, preacher, and later saint Francis of Assisi died on October 3rd. And according to Canadian astronomer and historian Vibert Douglas, the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan abruptly ended his military campaign in China, possibly owing to the phenomenon of five separate planetary conjunctions over the years 1226 and 1227.[2]

In the Middle Ages, the seven “planets”—Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and the sun and moon—were important celestial bodies in the heavenly realm. Each was thought to have a distinctive personality, an idea still reflected in Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916. Holst calls Jupiter “The Bringer of Jollity” and Saturn—colloquially also known as “Father Time”—“The Bringer of Old Age.” These names doubtless influenced the artistic expression in the series of dance performances for Holst’s Planets by the Princeton University Ballet in 2018 linked above.

16th century copy of a Byzantine diagram of the geocentric cosmos with Saturn labeled “κρόνος” and Jupiter labeled “ζεύς” in the fifth and seventh rings from earth (British Library, MS. Royal 16 C XII, fol. 45r).
1. 16th century copy of a Byzantine diagram of the geocentric cosmos with Saturn labeled “κρόνος” and Jupiter labeled “ζεύς” in the fifth and seventh rings from earth (London, British Library, MS. Royal 16 C XII, fol. 45r).

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, was initially named after the ancient Roman god of thunder, and its planetary neighbor Saturn, the god of agriculture and harvest, was also Jupiter’s father. In Greek mythology they are Zeus and Cronus and were sometimes represented by medieval artists as luminous pointed stars, or solid spheres in concentric circles of earth-centered astronomical diagrams, as in this later copy of a Byzantine geocentric model of the cosmos (Fig. 1).

Saturn on an astronomical papyrus fragment from Egypt, ca. 700–525 BCE, Dynasty 25-26 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 26.3.322).
2. Saturn on an astronomical papyrus fragment from Egypt, ca. 700–525 BCE, Dynasty 25-26 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 26.3.322).

Representations of the planets are found in the artistic traditions of many cultures in which astronomy was an important science, including the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hellenistic, Indian, Byzantine, Islamic, and Chinese spheres. A possible early figuration of the planet Saturn can be seen on this ancient papyrus fragment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an Egyptian deity (Fig. 2). A much later figuration of the planets is found in this sixteenth century “Book of Felicity” (Matali’ al-saadet) made for Sultan Murad III (r. 1574–1595), now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which contains images of the “exaltation” and “dejection” of the planets—that is, when they are in apogee and perigee (Fig. 3). On folio 33v, Saturn’s exaltation in Libra is represented by the zodiacal scales, and his dejection in Aries shows him falling headfirst onto the back of a ram. The lower two vignettes similarly depict Jupiter’s exaltation in Cancer by pairing him with the zodiacal crab, and his dejection in Capricorn by tumbling onto a goat.[3]

Saturn and Jupiter in exaltation and dejection, miniature from the Matali' al-saadet or “Book of Felicity” made in Constantinople, 1582 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Suppl.turc 242, fol. 33v).
3. Saturn and Jupiter in “exaltation” and “dejection,” miniature from the Matali’ al-saadet, or “Book of Felicity,” made in Constantinople, 1582 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Suppl.turc 242, fol. 33v).

In western European art, the planets were presented both as heavenly bodies and in symbolic form. In this late medieval manuscript of the Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”) by John Gower, a small miniature of the planetary system, prefacing the part on Astronomy, contains the sun and moon with human faces among five gold and starry planets, the uppermost two labeled with their Latin names “Saturnus” and “Iubiter” (Fig. 4).

Planetary system with five labeled planets and the sun and moon at the beginning of Book 7, part iv, of John Gower, Confessio Amantis, England, ca. 1470 (Morgan Library, MS. M.126, fol. 153v).
4. Planetary system with five labeled planets and the sun and moon at the beginning of Book 7, part iv, of John Gower, Confessio Amantis, England, ca. 1470 (New York, Morgan Library, MS. M.126, fol. 153v).

In Dante’s Divina Commedia, the spheres of heaven were represented by planets; Saturn was the seventh sphere and Jupiter the sixth. In this illustration of Paradiso 22, the scene of the “Heaven of Saturn” is portrayed by Beatrice and Dante welcoming five nude souls descending a ladder from a glowing red star with seven points (Fig. 5). Reading the Paradiso, we know that this level of heaven was reserved for the contemplanti, or the founders of monastic orders, “men who were kindled by that heat which brings to birth the blessed flowers and blessed fruits.”[4]

The “Heaven of Saturn” in Dante’s Divina Commedia, Naples, ca. 1385 (Morgan
5. The “Heaven of Saturn” in Dante, Divina Commedia, Naples, ca. 1385 (New York, Morgan Library, MS. M.676, fol. 114r).

In other medieval works the planets of the cosmos (and sometimes their children!) were personified as human figures.[5] In some of the earliest examples, planets were depicted as crowned figures, triumphant generals, or wearing laurels, rayed headpieces or wings; such types appear on Roman coins and as bust-length personifications in illustrated poems known as carmina figurata.[6]

Some representations evoked the temperaments often associated with each planet. Associated with the ambivalent nature of melancholy, Saturn was often configured as an old man with a handheld sickle (or a more “modern” scythe) and with a cloak draped over his head, but he can also hold a shovel, a wheel, and small nude figure, which he raises up as if to devour, a reference to the Greek myth in which he swallowed his children.[7] Jupiter was seen as a protective deity: his iconography varies from the classical, bearded archetype of “Zeus Pater” (Zeus the Father), who brandishes lightning bolts, a celestial wheel, or other symbols of his power, to his personification as a bishop in a late fifteenth-century astronomical miscellany in the Getty Museum.[8]

In classical mythology it was held that Jupiter drove Saturn away from his celestial throne. A marginal scene in this ninth century Homilies of Gregory Nazianzen depicts this dramatic argument of the ancients (Fig. 6). Saturn is pursued by Jupiter both wielding an axe, illustrating the First Invective against Julian the Emperor, “… let Jove rebel against Saturn, following his sire’s example; that sweet stone and bitter slayer of tyrants …”[9] In an early eleventh century manuscript of Rabanus Maurus’s encyclopedic De Universo, one miniature depicts Saturn with a scythe, nearly as tall as he, and Jupiter holds a symbolic pair of attributes: an eagle for deified justice and a serpent representing the age-old struggle for it (Fig. 7).

Saturn pursued by Jupiter, each holding upraised axe beneath arc of heaven in the upper margin of Oration 4 of Gregory Nazianzen, Homilies, 9c. (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, E.49-50 inf., p. 755).
6. Saturn pursued by Jupiter, each holding upraised axe beneath arc of heaven in the upper margin of Oration 4 of Gregory Nazianzen, Homilies, 9c. (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS. E.49-50 inf., p. 755).
Saturn, Jupiter, Janus, and Neptune in an illustration of Rabanus Maurus, De Universo, Lazio, ca. 1023 (Frosinone, Abbazia di Montecassino, MS. 132, p. 386).
7. Saturn, Jupiter, Janus, and Neptune in an illustration of Rabanus Maurus, De Universo, Lazio, ca. 1023 (Frosinone, Abbazia di Montecassino, MS. 132, p. 386).

Two highly emblematic representations of the planets Jupiter and Saturn appear in the Rheinish manuscript of the Von Dem Gang des Himmels und Sternen (“The Course of the Heavens and Stars”), forming its own “planetary conjunction” at the close of the book (the miniatures are on facing pages). Both planets, Saturn personified as a simple farmer and Jupiter as city patrician, are decorated with imagery from a number of astrological and zodiacal sources, including their corresponding symbols for Libra and Cancer (Figs. 8 & 9).

Personifications of the planets Saturn (left) and Jupiter (right) in Von dem Gang des Himmels und Sternen, attributed to Michael Scotus, Rhineland, late 15c. (Morgan Library, MS. M.384, fols. 28v and 29r)
8 & 9. Personifications of the planets Saturn (left) and Jupiter (right) in Von dem Gang des Himmels und Sternen, attributed to Michael Scotus, Rhineland, late 15c. (New York, Morgan Library, MS. M.384, fols. 28v and 29r).

The Index of Medieval Art database includes much more in the way of celestial imagery, including subjects related to the iconography of the other planets, stars, zodiac symbols, and constellations. The database also can be keyword searched for other named astronomical objects, such as “Star of Bethlehem.” These examples appear in a wide variety of works of art, including almanacs, calendars, astrological treatises, constellation maps, zodiac cycles, and a variety of narrative and allegorical works, and across different media, cultures, and periods.

The planetary motions of Saturn and Jupiter have been described by astronomers, such as Newton, Kepler, and Laplace, as “The Great Inequality,” meaning that while Jupiter’s mean period of motion is continually increasing, Saturn’s is continually diminishing and falling further behind.[10] Thus, both planets have long been approaching each other in the same direction, yet with enormous discordance.

The year 2020 has had its own prelude of tumultuous moments leading up to this great planetary conjunction. As the globe still grapples with a challenging year, it’s easy to imagine this alignment of Saturn and Jupiter as a sort of “clash of the titans,” but when we look west in the sky just after sunset, let us recall that this special occurrence, a most rare ballet of the planets, also marks a new season that will bring more light to our days.



[1] O’Neill, Mike. “Don’t Miss It: Jupiter, Saturn Will Look Like Double Planet for First Time Since Middle Ages.” SciTechDaily, 23 Nov. 2020, https://scitechdaily.com/dont-miss-it-jupiter-saturn-will-look-like-double-planet-for-first-time-since-middle-ages/; Strickland, Ashley. “Jupiter and Saturn Will Look like a Double Planet Later This Month.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Dec. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/12/03/world/jupiter-saturn-conjunction-2020-scn-trnd/index.html; Levenson, Michael. “Jupiter and Saturn Head for Closest Visible Alignment in 800 Years.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Dec. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/06/science/space/jupiter-saturn-align-christmas-star.html.

[2] Douglas, A. Vibert, “Historical Significance of Five Conjunctions, 1226–27,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 65 (1971): 129–132.

[3] See also this exquisite engraved and inlaid brass tray with personifications of planets made by Mamluk craftsmen and commissioned by a Sultan in Yemen in the early fourteenth century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 91.1.60). For more on astronomy and astrology in the medieval Islamic world, see this essay by Marika Sardar: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/astr/hd_astr.htm.

[4] Paradiso 22, 47–48 accessed at Barolini, Teodolinda. “Paradiso 22: Controlled Orphism.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/paradiso/paradiso-22/. See also the Princeton Dante Project https://dante.princeton.edu/pdp/, with recent news and developments on the project here, https://humanities.princeton.edu/2020/11/29/2020-rapid-response-grant-literary-visualizations-reconstructs-imaginations-of-dantes-readers/.

[5] Discussion of the planets and their characteristics, temperaments, and affinities are found in many almanacs, planet books, and other cosmological treatises. See especially the classic Warburgian study by Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (London: Nelson, 1964). Reissued by McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019.

[6] The Index database records three examples of planetary carmen figuratem, all in the British Library, MS. Cott.Tib.B.V (fol. 44v), MS. Cott.Tib.C.I (fol. 33r), and MS. Harley 647 (fol. 13v).

[7] Klibanksy, Panofsky, and Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, 197.

[8] For the Jupiter-Bishop on horseback see Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig XII 8 (83.MO.137), fol. 49v. See also the Art Stories post by Bryan C. Keene, “Written in the Stars: Astronomy and Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts,” Getty Iris Blog (30 April 2019), https://blogs.getty.edu/iris/written-in-the-stars-astronomy-and-astrology-in-medieval-manuscripts/.

[9] See lines 120–121: Gregory Nazianzen, “Julian the Emperor” (1888). Oration 4: First Invective Against Julian. The Tertullian Project, 14 Dec. 2020, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/gregory_nazianzen_2_oration4.htm.

[10] Wilson, Curtis, “The Great Inequality of Jupiter and Saturn: From Kepler to Laplace,” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 33, no. 1/3 (1985): 15–290.

The Iconography of Thanks-Giving

Manuscript image depicting Noah's Ark and Noah's thank-offering
1. Noah, his family, and the animals departing the ark, Noah offering to God, Vienna Genesis, 6th c CE (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS Theol. gr. 31), fol. 2v

The year 2020, with its global pandemic, successive environmental crises, and sharp social and political divisions, has tested the patience, faith, and/or equilibrium of many people. As we approach the winter holidays, some will find solace in practicing gratitude—for challenges overcome, for crises averted, or simply for the love and support of those around them. It was not so different in the Middle Ages, when people in difficult circumstances also sought opportunities to consider or express gratitude, sometimes by pondering longstanding exemplars and sometimes by offering thanks of their own. Many of these left traces in medieval visual culture.

The most widely known medieval images of thanks-giving are those directed to the divine and holy figures to whom the faithful turned in troubled times. An example is the offering made by Noah after surviving the Great Flood, as described in Genesis 8:20 and represented in such works as the sixth-century Vienna Genesis [1]. In this purple-dyed luxury manuscript, the offering scene appears below a short parade of humans and animals, including elephants, lions, and camels, that issues from the ark onto dry land. Noah hunches gently over a sacrificial lamb he has placed on an altar as a thank-offering for humanity’s second chance.

Manuscript image of Exodus and Passover scenes
2. Exodus scenes and preparations for Passover, Golden Haggadah, ca. 1320 (British Library, MS 27210), fol. 15r.

A more creative expression of thanks appears in the Golden Haggadah [2], a fourteenth-century Passover manuscript in which Aaron’s sister Miriam leads the women of the Israelites in music-making and dance to thank the Lord for bringing them safely out of Egypt (Ex. 15:20–21).

Stained glass window with scenes of healing
3. Healing of Hugh of Jervaulx, north ambulatory window, Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, early 13th c. Photo: Miyagisan, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Medieval Christians often gave visual thanks to the saints on behalf of those whom they were thought to have healed or rescued from danger. A thirteenth-century stained glass window in Canterbury cathedral records a number of miraculous cures performed by the relics of Saint Thomas Beckett, depicting the relieved victims of an arrow wound, malaria, madness, and even a nosebleed kneeling before the saint’s altar, their hands joined in thanks [3].

Manuscript illustrating a miracle of the Virgin mary
4. Miracle of the Silkworms, Cantigas de Santa María, ca. 1280 (Escorial, MS. T.I.1), fol. 30v

In the later Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary, thought to be the intercessor closest to God, earned special gratitude for her protection of the faithful: in the Cantigas de Santa María, the devotees who thank her for her miracles on behalf of the ill, the injured, and the unfortunate include the owner of an ailing silkworm colony, the recovery of which she celebrates by producing a beautiful silk textile that is presented to the Virgin by the king [4].

Silver processional cross
5. Silver processional cross from Divirgi, 527-547 (Istanbul, National Archaeological Museum).

At times it was the work of art itself that embodied thanks offered to a holy helper. An intriguing example is a mid-sixth-century silver processional cross from Divirigi, now in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, which bears an inscription in Armenian that has been translated “In gratitude … [missing text] … offers to their intercessor St. George (of) Caginkom” [5]. Although the name of the patron is now lost and the reason for their offering remains unstated, the economic value of this substantial silver object suggests the depth of the unknown donor’s gratitude.

Manuscript image depicting poet offering thanks before a church
6. Portrait of Milo of Saint-Amand, De sobrietate, early 11th century (Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, BPL 190), fol. 26v.

Creators and patrons sometimes added their thanks for the successful completion of a work of art. In an eleventh-century French manuscript of the poetic collection De sobrietate (Leiden, Universiteitsbib. BBL 190, fol. 16v), the poet Milo of Saint-Amand kneels before a church from which the hand of God issues in blessing; an inscription above reads “POETA GRA(TIA)S AGIT DEO PRO EXPLETO OPERE SUO” (The poet thanks God for the completion of his works) [6].

The mihrab of a mosque
Mihrab, Great Mosque of Córdoba, ca. 965 CE. Photo: Ingo Mehling – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37464031

In the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the mihrab added to the structure in the 960s is framed by blue and gold mosaic inscriptions in Arabic that thank God for the successful expansion of the building to accommodate the faithful [7].

Tapestry with scenes of Perseus and Andromeda
Story of Perseus and Andromeda, wool and silk tapestry, early 16th c. (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1927.487)

The belief that all good things come from God threads strongly through medieval visual culture. Nonetheless, some works record expressions of thanks between mortals—even if often these are legendary. An early sixteenth century tapestry from the Netherlands, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, depicts the story of Perseus and Andromeda in a series of scenes reading right to left [8]. While the climax of the narrative is Perseus’ slaying of the dragon that threatened the princess and her land, the sequence ends with the marriage of Andromeda to Perseus in thanks for his heroic deed, an arrangement for which the young couple appears to be, well, grateful.

The staff of the Index hope that the season finds our readers safe, in good health, and with something to give thanks for.

Remote Desktops

As the fall 2020 semester begins and the Index staff continue to work remotely, each of us connecting from different locations, our home libraries and desks have become essential tools in our research. They call to mind medieval images in which the scribe’s desk and well-stacked bookshelves are familiar iconographic attributes of the Evangelists, as well as theologians, scholars, physicians, and literati, as they labored in their study spaces (see Index subjects: Bookcase, Scholar, Physician, Literatus, and Philosopher Type). Their desks took a variety of forms and shapes, from tall book stands or lecterns, sometimes decorated with animals, birds, and foliage, to round or squat tables of a simpler design. Medieval images of scribes and writers often show the surfaces of their desks covered with open books or sheets, some with scrawled lines (search Index keyword: pseudo-inscriptions), inkhorns and inkpots, knives, pen cases, and a spare stylus or two.

Scholar seated before round desk marginal illustration in French Book of Hours
Scholar sitting on a canopied chair before open book on round desk. Book of Hours, Paris, ca. 1430 (Morgan Library, MS. M.359, fol. 123r).
Evangelist Matthew scribal portrait in Gospel Book from Mouth Athos
Evangelist Matthew before open book on dolphin lectern and desk spread with stylus case, compass, pen knife, with book and scrolls in lower cabinet. Gospel Book, ca. 980–1020 (Mount Athos, Dionysiou Monastery, MS. 588, fol. 14v).

Working in a modern study space, many of these similar tools are within my reach: pens, scissors, a pencil cup, and plenty of Post-it Notes containing my jotted reminders—arguably legible! My computer desktop is a hub for images of medieval works of art, articles, and spreadsheets that help organize my Index work. To the right of me, sits a modest collection of tomes (to name a few, Emile Mâle’s Religious Art in France: The Late Middle Ages; Roger Wieck’s Painted Prayers: The Book of Hours in Medieval and Renaissance Art; Baxter’s Bestiaries and Their Users in the Middle Ages, and the catalogues The Splendor of the Word and The Golden Age of Ivory Gothic Carvings in North American Collections). Some books are my own and some are out on temporary loan from the Index’s research library and from Firestone Library, but all are bolstering this new environment of cataloguing and scholarship from home.

For Index research staff, this means that our working desktops (both physical and virtual) and our carefully curated home libraries (whether lining our walls or nested digitally into desktop folders) will support our ongoing remote activities. This semester, we will continue to pursue new art historical research for additions to the database, including works from the original print backfiles, from monumental mosaics to illuminated manuscripts and ivory objects. We remain focused on expanding the Index collection to present the rich array of iconography from the global Middle Ages. We will also continue to refine the database by building and improving work of art location authorities, further developing Index subject classifications that improve thematic browsing, and implementing the new hierarchical browse tool for researching the placement of medieval iconography within structures. Above all, we will remain available to support researchers at all levels in their use of the online Index database.

Philosopher, scroll or roll in left hand, seated before arcade. Fragment of marble sarcophagus, Asia Minor, ca. 260 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 18.108).
Monk, pen in right hand, writing on scroll on lectern beside cabinet containing books. Cantiga 56.
Monk, pen in right hand, writing on scroll on lectern beside cabinet containing books. Cantiga 56. Cantigas de Santa María, Seville, ca. 1280 (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, T.I.1, fol. 83r).

Wherever you may be this term—whether you feel like a monk in a cell or a monkey with an inkpot—we hope that you are well and looking forward to your study, surrounded by the tools of your scholarship. We look forward to hearing how we can help serve your research and teaching in the upcoming academic year.

Marginal illustration and drollery of monkey as scribe in French Book of Hours
Marginal drollery of monkey, holding pen and scroll inscribed with pseudo-inscriptions, seated on bench next to inkpot. Book of Hours, Paris, ca. 1440 (Morgan Library, MS. M.303, fol. 43r).

On Present and Past at the Index

Like many individuals and institutions, we at the Index of Medieval Art have been saddened and angered by the tragic and unjust deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, which highlight the persistent patterns of racist violence, harassment, and injustice that mark our nation’s history. As historians, we see the long roots of inequity and prejudice that gave rise to this legacy; as individuals, we commit to eradicating them.

We stand with Princeton University’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, in acknowledging our responsibility to oppose racism and to work to dismantle the systemic structures that allow it to survive. We join him in pursuing the commitment to diversity, inclusivity, and human rights that stands at the core of the university’s mission. 

For the Index, this will include continuing to grapple with our own collection’s Eurocentric and colonialist past, as well as our responsibility to present the visual culture of the Middle Ages in a way that is expansive, inclusive, and respectful of the wide diversity of human artistic expression. It also means making it clear that the Index doors are open to all who wish to work and learn with us; inviting and amplifying new voices and perspectives in the work that we do; and creating opportunities that support academic, professional, and individual development for all. 

We took modest steps toward these goals in the renaming of the Index in 2017, in updating and beginning to rethink its century-old taxonomy and cataloguing parameters, and through efforts to choose Index conference themes and speakers that are more widely representative of our field’s true diversity. However, we know that there is much more and harder work still to come. We commit to the self-reflection and dialogue that this work entails and look forward to making our values clear in deeds as well as words.