“We three kings of Orient are…” runs the traditional Christmas carol. If you were that kid who wondered “Just who are these guys with their weird-sounding gifts? And where’s ‘Orientare’ anyway?” this blog post is for you.
The story of the Magi originated in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12), which tells of “wise men from the east” (magi ab oriente) who traveled to Jerusalem seeking the king of the Jews after seeing a star portending his birth. When they reached Bethlehem, Matthew recounts, they fell and adored him, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although this fairly skeletal story offers few details about how the magi looked or from where “in the east” they hailed, that didn’t stop medieval artists from developing their Biblical story into an elaborate visual tradition.
Matthew offers no information about the number of magi who made the trip to Bethlehem. The tradition of depicting them as a trio predominated from the third century onward, perhaps inspired by the three gifts mentioned in the biblical account. Nonetheless, early medieval depictions of the magi in other numbers, such as two, four, or even six, can occasionally be found. Matthew also remains silent about the magi’s names; the ones with which we are familiar today—Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar—appear much later, in Byzantine texts and images of the sixth century. One of the earliest such instances is the Adoration of the Magi mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, where the elder, foremost magus is labeled Caspar, rather than Melchior, as more often would be the case in later medieval art.
Despite the lack of information about the locations from which the magi came, artists quickly developed ways of visually emphasizing their foreign origins. Early medieval images drew on traditional Roman representations of non-Roman peoples paying homage to the emperor, depicting the magi in appropriately “outlandish” dress such as the short tunics, brightly patterned leggings, and forward-peaked Phrygian caps that appear at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. Artistic interest in signaling the magi’s foreign origins corresponded well with Christian exegeses that interpreted the adoration of the magi as symbolic of “heathen” peoples’ recognition of Christ. It was not until the tenth century in western Europe that the magi were reconceived as royal figures, in association with the reference of Isaiah 60:1-4 to the Messiah’s illumination of Gentiles and kings. In many works of art from this point onward, the magi have traded in their traditional caps and trousers for crowns and royal robes, as in the early fourteenth-century Saligny Hours (Morgan Library & Museum, MS. M.60, fol.8r).
From the early Middle Ages onward, the magi were increasingly conceived to be of different ages and geographical origins. In the eighth century, the unknown Irish author nicknamed the “Pseudo-Bede” set down these ideas in writing, describing the magi as of three ages—youth, maturity, and old age—that corresponded to three stages of the life cycle as described by Classical philosophers. Their representation in the ninth-century Stuttgart Psalter (Würtembergische Landesbibliothek, Bibl. Fol. 23, fol. 84r) observes this tradition, depicting them with a white beard, a dark beard, and no beard at all.
The Pseudo-Bede also described the magi as hailing from the three known parts of the medieval world: Europe, Asia, and Africa. These continents, which formed the basis for the typically tripartite division of medieval T-O maps, were also thought each to have been settled by one of Noah’s three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japeth, with whom medieval thinkers sometimes associated the division of humanity into African, Asian, and European “races.” The late medieval and early modern tradition of representing the magi with ethnic features that European artists tended to associate with each continent—Melchior as a white European, Caspar with Asian features, and Balthazar as a black African—can be traced to this chain of ideas. The opportunity to distinguish the magi as exotic foreigners through their physical appearance as well as through costume and other attributes inspired some of the most elaborate and imaginative portrayals of the later Middle Ages, among them Hieronymous Bosch’s famous 1510 Adoration of the Magi in the Prado Museum. In the Index, many similar images can be found by browsing the subject “Black Magus.”
Extensive image cycles developed around the story of the magi; these illustrate the several stages of their journey, including their questioning of Herod, their sighting of the star, and their arrival in Bethlehem, as well as the dream in which they are warned to avoid Herod and their journey homeward by another route. Over a dozen of these subjects, from “Magi, Adoration” to “Magi, Vision of Christ at Different Ages,” are catalogued in the Index. The most popular subject of all, for medieval and modern viewers alike, is the Adoration of the Magi, depicting the moment when the wise men render homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Portrayals of this event range in both complexity and mood, from the charming, trousered travelers of early Christian tradition to the theatrical processions, replete with angels, gaily costumed servants, and trains of exotic animals (including camels!), of late medieval works like Gentile da Fabriano’s 1423 altarpiece of the Adoration, now in the Uffizi Gallery. Although we still have no idea where these wise guys came from, their presence never fails to bring magic and mystery to the traditional Christmas story.
Someone made each of the works of art described in the Index of Medieval Art, and since the beginning of its online database, The Index has acknowledged the individuals and workshops responsible for generating illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, mosaics, et al. when their identities are known. In the original Index system, artists and scribes each occupied a separate field, however, in the updated Index a new field has been established to incorporate both roles under the title of Creator. This reflects the fact that in some media, such as manuscript illumination, the roles of scribe and artist were not always separate: at times one individual undertook both kinds of work, while in other cases the jobs were more specialized.
The Index here expresses a caveat: Creator will not appear on every record. Medieval artists and scribes were/are largely anonymous, creating unsigned works of art for patrons who were also frequently unknown. However, some of the approximately 1400 creators who are named in the Index are known because they signed their works. Others were acknowledged by patrons who named artisans in their inventories, and still others have been identified by modern art historians who have spotted enough similarities among groups of works to assign a nickname for their otherwise anonymous master.
You can learn more about the artist associated with a particular work of art by looking at the work of art record, where the Creator field is located just toward the bottom. In the example below, a screen shot of a manuscript main record shows the name of Simon Bening as creator.
Click on the name, and another window will open providing information about the creator, including such information as general notes, alternate names, bibliographical citations, profession/s and work of art references. This last bit of information presents a list of all works of art associated by the Index with the artist. In the case of our example Simon Bening, this includes some 250 manuscript folios attributed to the artist and included in our database. The researcher can then click through the records to view these works.
You can also browse by Creator name to see the information and records that the Index includes for a particular Creator. Choose the Browse option on the home page, and from the Browse Indices, click on Creator to open an alphabetical list of names. To find the artist or scribe of interest, either scroll through the list or type the desired name on the line below “Creator” at the top of the list. Click on the correct name, and a window will open as above.
The information about artists and scribes is intended to provide a springboard for further research. Citations frequently include an article in Oxford Art Online, many of which are followed in turn by relevant bibliography.
Although as noted, most medieval artists and scribes are unknown, The Index does include nearly 1400 “named” creators. A significant portion remain personally anonymous, but have been given monikers based on the attribution of works of very similar style or other details, such as the Gold Scrolls Group, named for a distinctive style of ornament, or the Master of Catherine of Cleves, a name based on work created for a specific patron. Searching Grove Art Online for “Anonymous Masters” will yield page after page of unknown creators whose works have been linked in this way to create a body of work by one artist, scribe or workshop. Because many of these names are still in use in art historical scholarship, the Index includes them in the Creator list, sometimes designating them as “see from” terms when consensus about authorship is not clear. We love to keep our records updated, so if you know of new research about the attribution of a work of art, please bring it to our attention at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Judith K. Golden
Registration for the Symposium “Eclecticism at the Edges: Medieval Art and Architecture at the Crossroads of the Latin, Greek, and Slavic Cultural Spheres” is now open. The Symposium will be held on April 5-6, 2019 in 106 McCormick Hall on the Princeton University campus. This event is free, but registration is required to guarantee seating.
For details about the Symposium, please check the event web page at https://ima.princeton.edu/conferences/
We look forward to seeing you!
Registration for the Nov. 17 Index conference “Out of Bounds: Exploring the Limits of Medieval Art” is now open. Lectures will take place in 101 McCormick Hall on the Princeton University campus between 9-5, with a reception to follow in the Palmer House. Registration is free but required to guarantee a seat. For details about the conference, please check the event web page at https://ima.princeton.edu/conferences/. We look forward to seeing you!
Fourth in a series of short blog posts introducing new features of our online database
Did you know that you can filter Index search results by style and/or culture of origin? The “Style/Culture” field on the search filters page groups results according to widely used stylistic or cultural categories, such as “Gothic,” “Ethiopian,” or “Jewish.”
As any student of art history knows, stylistic and cultural labels can be difficult to define. Stylistically speaking, what’s “Gothic” in France in 1150 may be considered “Romanesque” at the same date in Italy, while the parameters for ethnic, religious, or other cultural communities can vary even more dramatically. Still, because we’ve observed that students and other new users of the Index may find such labels helpful in narrowing and exploring search results, we’ve elected to keep them in our new database, consulting authorities such as the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus and even current medieval art textbooks to refine how we apply them. If you’d like to learn more about why we applied a particular “Style/Culture” label to a work of art, you can look at the authority record for that label.
Because style and culture terms remain subjective even in the best of circumstances, they may not yield precise results and are most usefully applied when you are searching broadly to learn how a subject was represented in a particular period or cultural sphere, rather than to search for a particular example. You might find, for example, that searching for a frequently represented subject such as “Virgin Mary: Annunciation” delivers an intimidating 2500+ results. However, if what you really wanted was to see examples of how the Annunciation was depicted in Byzantine art, narrowing the results by using the “Style/Culture” delimiter “Byzantine” reduces this to a much more manageable—and more relevant—list of 276 records.
Some delimiters will still deliver a high number of results (try using “Gothic” instead of “Byzantine” to see what we mean), but you can refine these further by using additional filters—such as Date, Location, or Medium—when you’re ready for more specificity. To apply the Style/Culture filter, type a search term into the free text field at the upper right of the search window. On the results page, choose the “Filters” option, then in the “Style/Culture filter, begin typing the term you’re looking for—the system will auto-complete the term, if it exists—and then, once you’ve selected the term you want, simply click “Search.” The filtered results will appear below.
If you’d like to view a complete list of Style/Culture terms currently used by the Index, click on “Browse” at the top of the window and then choose Style/Culture. To expedite your search for a particular term, type it into the search line at the top of the list.
As always, if you have questions or comments about the Index of Medieval Art database, please contact email@example.com. We’re here to help, and we want to know what you think.
This year’s contributions are unusually diverse, ranging from Byzantine wall paintings and Romanesque sculpture to Ottonian dynastic images and Jewish ritual books. In addition, for the first time this year authors were offered the option to include color illustrations. Check out the contents of the latest volume on the updated journal page: https://ima.princeton.edu/studies-in-iconography/. Congratulations and thank you to all our authors and reviewers!
Studies in Iconography (ISSN 0148-1029) is an annual publication housed at the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University since October 1999. It is dedicated to publishing innovative work on iconography and other aspects of visual culture of the period up to 1600. We welcome submissions of innovative work on iconography and other aspects of visual culture of the period up to 1600, including those with interdisciplinary, theoretical, and critical perspectives. Submissions are accepted year round; see https://ima.princeton.edu/studies-in-iconography-editorial-guidelines/ for current guidelines.
The Index will be closed on June 4 and 5 as Princeton celebrates Class Day and Commencement 2018. We look forward to welcoming visitors during Princeton University weekday summer hours, 8:45-4:30, beginning June 6.
It’s easy to assume that medieval iconography was unchanging: that after a particular way of representing a saint or scene was invented, it became fixed in tradition. Not so! Medieval iconography and the stories that lay behind it moved constantly with the times, adapting over the centuries to the local beliefs and practices of their surrounding communities. Many of these post-medieval adaptations were frankly anachronistic, as is the topic of the present post, which also happens to be of central importance here at the Index: coffee.
Coffee was not a medieval beverage; the earliest evidence of its consumption in this form derives from fifteenth-century Yemen, from where it spread to other parts of the Islamic world, reaching Ottoman-ruled Constantinople in the sixteenth century and western Europe soon after. Where it was traded most actively, it inspired import companies, coffeehouses, and coffee-centered social practices, eventually even percolating (!) into medieval artistic and legendary traditions to which it had no original connections at all.
One example of this trend is Saint George’s “coffee boy,” a name sometimes given to the small figure holding a vessel who rides behind the saint on certain Byzantine and “post-Byzantine” icons (Fig.1). The type for some time puzzled scholars, who now conclude, on the basis of written sources, that such scenes depict Saint George miraculously rescuing a Christian captive.
However, the path to this conclusion was once obscured by alternative local interpretations. One legend that still circulates today in some villages in Cyprus explains that Saint George was drinking coffee when news reached him of the princess he was to rescue from a dragon. With no further ado he mounted his horse, and the coffee boy immediately followed him with his beverage, allowing the saint to finish it on the ride. While the legend seems unlikely (to say the least), our interest lies in how this conflation came into being. Why would the explanation of this image rest on coffee, a beverage unknown either to the third-century saint or to the medieval icon painters who portrayed him?
To answer this, we must return to the two original legends that inspired this iconography. In the former, the young boy was captured by the Bulgarians. He was so handsome that their ruler made him a steward and kept the boy in his residence. On the same evening Saint George rescued him, the ruler had asked him to bring water for hand-washing during the supper in the palace. In the second instance, the boy was taken into captivity by the Saracens and was made the personal cupbearer of the Emir of Crete; he was in the act of offering a glass of wine to the Emir when Saint George appeared and rescued him. The first representations of this iconography, in which the boy holds either a cup or a ewer, appeared in the twelfth century and then spread in the Eastern Mediterranean, where they promoted the role of Saint George as defender of Christians in areas threatened by foreign invasion. Not surprisingly, the type became even more widespread in Orthodox icons after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire.
In this later period, the representation of the miracle of the captive boy was often conflated with the more famous episode of Saint George killing the dragon and saving the princess (Fig. 2). This compositional transition combines the two miraculous episodes to reinforce the original connotation of protection from “infidels,” embodied by the young boy, and of the fight against evil, symbolized by the dragon and the unharmed princess. After the sixteenth century, the garments worn by the young boy reflect contemporary fashion under the Ottoman rule: baggy trousers, a yelek (vest), a cebken (jacket) and a distinctive hat. The opacity of the ewer he holds, which resembled a coffee pot, may have led to the boy’s identification as a coffee server, much like the vendors found throughout Ottoman-ruled lands (Fig.3). Like so much medieval iconography, the interpretation of St. George’s “coffee” boy thus tells us much more about the preoccupations of a changing early modern society than it does about George’s own hagiography.
The association of coffee with St. Drogo, a French saint venerated at Sebourg, has even more circuitous history. Since about 1860, Drogo has been credited as the patron saint of coffeehouses, especially in Ghent, but the reasons for this remain obscure. A twelfth-century orphan, he early devoted himself to penance, pilgrimage, and charity, giving away all that he earned as a shepherd beside what he needed to stay alive (Fig. 4). When a painful hernia made work and travel impossible, he settled down as a hermit in Sebourg, living on a bare ration of brown bread and warm water until his death in 1186.
Drogo’s hagiography offers nothing that might link the saint to coffee besides his penchant for drinking warm water, and this might have encouraged his association with the beverage. However, it may be worth considering that in the mid-nineteenth century, when the saint’s link to coffeehouses is first recorded, his cult center of Sebourg was also renowned for the production of chicory, a plant used in combination with coffee and as a coffee substitute in both France and the Low Countries from the late eighteenth century onward. Could the local chicory trade have encouraged St. Drogo’s association with coffee drinking? We would love to hear from historians who may have an answer to this mystery.
Anachronisms aside, what St. Drogo and the “coffee boy” tell us quite clearly is how flexibly saints’ lives and iconography responded to the changing priorities of the communities around them. The same flexibility more recently has given us Saint Claire as the patron saint of television and Saint Isidore of Seville as patron of the internet. What new saintly protectors will the 21st century bring? There’s a question to ponder over your next cup of joe.
Pamela Patton and Alessia Rossi
As our subscribers will have heard, refinements of the new Index database application are proceeding on schedule, and on March 30 it will become the primary and only route to online search of Index records. We think you’ll find the new platform much more user friendly and appreciate features such as filtered searching, a date slider, and (mirabile dictu) immediately visible thumbnail images.
Subscribing institutions should be switching the URL to https://theindex.princeton.edu, and some may have done so already. You should also be able to access the database by navigating to this URL if you are on site and using the IP range of a subscribing institution.
If you’d like a jump start in using the new system, please check out the tips below. Your feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow this link to reach the landing page:
Once there, click on the “Search” dropdown and choose “Advanced Search.” Type one or more keywords into the “Search Expression” line for a Boolean search, which can be filtered by Work of Art Type, Creator, Location, etc. in the fields below; dates can be refined using the slider. Exact-phrase searching iis coming in the next few weeks, so if it isn’t active when you visit, please check back.
Clicking the search button calls up a results list that appears below the search filters; click thumbnails to see the full records. Works can also be searched for by browsing the Index authorities for Subject, Creator, Patron, among others; each authority includes an expandable bar containing to the records in which the term appears.
As you try out the site, please remember that some design elements and search tools are still actively in development: layout, terminology, and search dynamics still may change. This makes your feedback all the more useful, as it helps us to evaluate future refinements. We look forward to hearing from you!
The medieval New Year was not always celebrated on January 1. Although this was the first day of the Roman civil calendar, which eventually was adopted in much of the medieval world, people of the Middle Ages often marked the start of the year with celebrations on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; on the near-springtime date of March 1; or even on Christmas or Easter. Nonetheless, in medieval iconography, January continued to be associated with images of the ancient Roman deity Janus, who personified both the month and the transition and reflection that accompanied the change of the year.
Janus was among the oldest gods venerated in ancient Rome, where he was associated with doorways, gates, and arches (one word for which was the Latin ianus) as well as temporal transitions. Ovid’s Fasti, an unfinished Latin poem on the Roman year, opens the kalends (first day) of January with an appeal to “Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year, /The only god who is able to see behind him,” asking him to bring a favorable year. As early as the third century BCE, Janus was commemorated on coins as a bust with two bearded faces looking in opposite directions from a single neck, illustrating his ability to see both past and future (Fig. 1).
Janus’s status as overseer of temporal change persisted into the Middle Ages. In City of God (Book 7, ch. IX), Augustine wrote that “ad Ianum pertinent initia factorum” (the beginnings of accomplishments belong to Janus), while in his own Etymologies, Isidore of Seville associates the figure with the month of January and describes his double face as representing the beginning and the end of the year. Although Janus was occasionally represented in other visual contexts, the vast majority of medieval imagery relates to this timekeeping role.
In the Middle Ages, Janus most often appeared as the sign for January in calendrical cycles such as zodiacs and occupations of the months. An early example appears in a calendar page from a fragmentary late tenth-century sacramentary produced in Fulda (Fig. 2). Here, Janus appears at the upper left as a youthful foot soldier with sword drawn, his two faces turned vigilantly over each shoulder.
In the early twelfth-century calendrical cycle painted in the Panteón de los Reyes in San Isidoro of León, a roundel labeled “Genuarius” (January) contains a representation of Janus standing between two portals, the left shut and the right open to suggest the closing of the past year and the opening of the coming one (Fig. 3).
Yet another variant is found on an archivolt of the Ascension portal of the west facade of Chartres Cathedral, which combines depictions of the zodiac with the labors of the months (Fig. 4). Here, Janus displays faces of different ages, one youthful and beardless and the other with a mature beard, emphasizing the passage of time from the old year to the new.
The medieval calendar traditionally associated January with feasting, so it is not surprising that Janus often appears at a laden table, both his faces engaged in eating and drinking. In the late twelfth-century Fécamp Psalter, he sits alone, one face sipping wine from a chalice in his right hand as the other chews a morsel of meat from his left and two servants wait to replenish his meal (Fig. 5).
In the medieval west, feasting scenes of this kind became common in the calendars of private prayer books, especially in late medieval Books of Hours. In a lavishly decorated French example produced between 1420 and 1430, possibly in Rouen, Janus sits snugly in a roundel at the bottom of the January page, enjoying double dishes of meat as a servant waits at his elbow (Fig. 6). The connotations of comfort and plenty in such images surely appealed to their wealthy viewers in the dark and cold of winter.
The novelty of Janus’s double face sometimes inspired fanciful artistic interpretations. Some artists increased the number of his faces to three or even four, drawing on ancient and medieval traditions that linked the god with past, present, and future or the cardinal directions. A thirteenth-century stained glass window of the Occupations of the Months in the cathedral of Chartres cathedral depicts the figure with three faces; he stands in an open portal beside an image of the Aquarian water-bearer (Fig. 7).
The illuminator of the fourteenth-century Luttrell Psalter, an artist of striking creativity, transformed Janus into a fanciful marginal hybrid, his double face, surmounted by a three-peaked red hat, affixed to a feathered bird’s body with a vinelike foliate tail (Fig. 8). Below, two dark-skinned servants prepare a meal in possible reference to the figure’s traditional feast.
A search for “Pagan Type: Janus” in the beta version of the new Index of Medieval Art database currently brings up 75 results, which can be filtered by date, location, medium, and other delimiters. We encourage you to explore these examples and more at our beta site, available to subscribing institutions at https://theindex.princeton.edu/
Ovid, Fasti, Book I: https://web.archive.org/web/20050419220209/http://www.tkline.freeserve.co.uk/OvidFastiBkOne.htm#_Toc69367257
Kühnel, Bianca. “The Perception of History in Thirteenth-Century Crusader Art,” France and the Holy Land: Frankish Culture at the End of the Crusades. Edited by Daniel H. Weiss and Lisa Mahoney. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, 161-186, esp. 165-172.
Thraede, Klaus. “Ianus.” Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum. Stuttgart, Hiersemann1994), cols. 1259-1282.