Category Archives: Index Highlights

Exploring the Photographic Archive of the Index: Part 1

This summer The Index of Medieval Art welcomed two students from the Master of Information program at Rutgers University to inventory the Index’s photographic archive. Comprising nearly two hundred thousand cards in sixteen different medium categories, this historic image collection provides researchers a rich resource of sometimes rare visual references for the study of art produced throughout the Middle Ages. The inventories undertaken by Ryan Gerber and Michele Mesi have illuminated the extent of the archive and helped to assess the image and cataloguing needs for ongoing research and cataloguing at the Index. In this special two-part blog post, we are pleased to present their observations and accounts of their experiences.


It is a testament to the Index’s stimulating power that, despite my lack of an art-historical background, I found myself entranced by the system of cataloguing medieval iconography that the Index pioneered and is still practicing to this day. Its vision of greater accessibility through complete digitization represents another milestone in its long history, and one which will be a gift to scholars of all persuasions and experience levels.

A system largely developed by Index director Helen Woodruff in the 1930s, the photographic archive is organized in the first place by medium, then by location, object type, and the numeric order within that group. Unique codes on the left-hand corner of every index card in the catalogue represent each of these levels of organization. The fruits of this labor are hard to miss after spending any time with the Index and its elegantly interwoven subject index and photographic archive, where one can move seamlessly from subject description to pictorial representations and vice versa.

This work has also left behind a trove of archival resources such as hundreds of rolls of film and the so-called “Black Books” that were used to track the negative numbers. Each of the medium categories I inventoried not only laid the groundwork for further analysis of the collection as a whole, but highlighted the Index’s remarkable century-old ability to generate new curiosities and paths of inquiry.

Terracotta, Temporary Cards, Lamps, and Lions

Fig. 1. Terracotta lamp stamped with a lion and tree motif, 4th–7th centuries. Athens, Benaki Museum (GE 11992).

Under the medium “Terra Cotta”—a mixture of clay and water that is formed and baked or fired—the Index records more than twenty-five hundred objects across 196 locations. Of these objects, about sixty-five percent of them are oil lamps. The inventory of these files revealed some of the more common iconographic motifs found on terracotta objects, which include foliate ornament, a variety of land animals and birds, symbols such as crosses, as well as inscriptions and monograms. One terracotta lamp from the Benaki Museum in Athens depicts two of these popular motifs—a lion and a tree—combined on one impressed discus (Fig. 1).

Most photograph cards contain representations of the objects, but they also record the object’s location, the photograph’s negative numbers, subject headings for the image or images on the object, and some bibliographic information. However, there are many temporary “Orange Cards” in the archive that contain only a bibliographic reference and a subject term, and these still await corresponding images. Their inclusion in the original system nonetheless provides important data points about the objects they describe, laying the groundwork for future cataloguers to source the images for these object records. For example, the Index’s photo archive of terracotta objects in the National Museum at Carthage is mostly Orange Cards because the original Index records of these objects derive from a 19th-century publication with very few illustrations. While it would be useful to see images of the “lions” held at the National Museum in Carthage, even in the absence of photographs it may be just as useful to know that, of the 970 terracotta lamps held in that location, nearly four hundred depict animals, and about sixty-five of those include a lion.

A Face in Gold Glass

The “Gold Glass” files record over 650 objects across sixty-three locations dating mostly from late antiquity between the 3rd and 7th centuries. Of these objects, nearly half are vessels of some kind. Gold glass developed as a medium in the ancient Roman and Hellenistic periods and consisted of decorative engravings made in gold leaf, which were then sandwiched between fused layers of glass. The result was lavish decoration, and exemplary pieces in this medium offer strikingly detailed portraits of their subjects, often depicting married pairs, family groups, or religious figures associated with one another, such as Saints Peter and Paul. Historians have noted the rarity of gold glass, as well as its costly, specialized method of production.[1]

Fig. 2. Gold Glass Busts of Married Pair inscribed GREGORI BIBE [E]T PROPINA TVIS (Rome, 200–299 CE). Museo Sacro della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City State (Inv. no. 743).

Gold glass was a special interest of Index founder Charles Rufus Morey, and his pioneering catalogue of the Vatican Library’s collections features as its first entry an example also catalogued by the Index. It shows the busts of a married couple inscribed above with the name Gregori and a Latin equivalent of “cheers!”: “Gregori bibe [e]t propina tuis,” or “Gregory, drink and drink to thine!” (Fig. 2).[2]

Fig. 3. Illustration of the gold glass portrait of “Sappo Flacillae” from the 1873 catalogue Histoire de l’art de la Verrerie dans l’Antiquité, pl. 43.

Another interesting discovery in the “Gold Glass” category was a round vessel fragment last recorded in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris. It depicts a striking bust of a figure with shorn hair, dressed in a trimmed tunic, and with a distinctive crescent shape on their forehead. The only other information on the photograph card was the source of the image, the antiquities catalogue that Anne-Claude-Philippe de Caylus published in seven volumes from 1756 to 1767.[3] Caylus’s catalogue was a valuable starting point for identifying this figure, whose iconographic description had not been entered in the Index’s subject files or the database. A little more searching led to a color image in a French catalogue, the Histoire de l’art de la Verrerie dans l’Antiquité (Fig. 3), and to the conclusion that the inscription “SAPPO FLACILLAE”—with the genitive form of the empress’s name—referred to a branded slave who had been freed by the Roman Empress Aelia Flacilla (356–386). We also used the photo-editing web application Pixlr to create a positive image of “Sappo” so that the image from the Index archive can now be seen as it appeared in the catalogue of the comte de Caylus (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. “Sappo Flacillae” from the Cabinet des Médailles (Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques de la Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris), engraving from Anne-Claude-Philippe de Caylus, Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, greques, romaines et gauloises (Paris, 1756–57), pl. 53.2, shown as the negative from the Index files (left) and as the positive image made with Pixlr (right).

Impressions in Wax

Comprising a little over one thousand objects in 105 locations, the “Wax” medium files are overwhelmingly made up of stamps from Europe dating largely to the 13th and 14th centuries. Although the archive groups these objects into the single object category “Stamp,” the Index database divides them into two Work of Art Types, “Seal Matrix” (that is, the tool used to make the impression) and “Seal Impression” (that is, an impression made by a matrix).[4] Viewing about a thousand examples of Gothic seals intended for both religious and secular officialdom brought into literal relief the development of the production of seal dies from simple figural representations to complex ecclesiastical chapters in miniature, such as the Stamp of Ely Priory, dated to about 1240–1260 (Fig. 5). Other favored subjects in wax seals include heraldry, nobles, and popular saints and bishops, like Thomas Becket. The wealth of iconographic information in the “Wax” files—indeed throughout the archive—emphasizes that the Index is not a closed system, and has at every turn great potential for leading one into new areas of inquiry.

Fig. 5. Obverse of the Stamp of Ely Priory. London, British Museum (Birch 1523). Photograph: Pedrick, Monastic Seals (1902), pl. 3.5.

Ryan Gerber is a graduate student at Rutgers University studying Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Preservation. He holds an MA in English from The College of New Jersey with a concentration in Medieval and Early Modern Literature. His interests include digital preservation and retrieval, the digital humanities, and information behavior.


See Part 2 written by Michele Mesi.

[1] Giulia Cesarin, “Gold-Glasses: From their Origin to Late Antiquity in the Mediterranean,” in Things that Travelled: Mediterranean Glass in the First Millennium AD (London: UCL Press, 2018), 22–45.

[2] Morey noted of the inscription that “the E of ‘bibe’ or of ‘et’ [was] omitted by mistake.” Charles Rufus Morey, The Gold-Glass Collection of the Vatican Library (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1959), 1. Translation after Georg Daltrop in Leonard von Matt, Georg Daltrop, and Adriano Prandi, Art Treasures of the Vatican Library (New York: Abrams, [1970]), 168.

[3] Anne-Claude-Philippe de Caylus, Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, greques, romaines et gauloises (Paris, 1756–57), 193–205, pl. 53.2, https://archive.org/details/recueildantiquit03cayl/page/n10.

[4] See the Index database Work of Art Type browse list to access these Work of Art References.

Exploring the Photographic Archive of The Index: Part 2

Precious Gems Containing a Wealth of Iconography

Fig. 1. Jasper cameo of Abrasax, 3rd century. Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Lewis Collection. Photo: ©Genevra Kornbluth at www.KornbluthPhoto.com.

“Glyptic” is among the smaller medium categories in the Index archive, filling only one drawer with a little more than eleven hundred cards that record only about nine hundred objects. The term “glyptics” refers the art of carving gems or seals—whether in intaglio or in relief—typically in gems or precious stones such as jasper, agate, carnelian, and amethyst.[1] This form of art is one of the oldest—known since the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Assyrian civilizations—but it was not until the Hellenistic period that relief cameos, seals, and more intricate glyptic objects began to appear.[2]

Glyptics, which were often worn as jewelry or incorporated into ecclesiastical objects, are recorded in the Index primarily as gems, amulets, plaques, rings, and stamps, and the largest category, cameos, which makes up nearly a third of the glyptic objects in the Index files. A significant portion of the subjects on these carved gems include animals and plant life, like doves, dolphins, fish, palm trees, and fantastic creatures. There are other symbols as well, such as the anchor, which appears on over forty examples. A significant number of glyptics incorporate classical and mythological figures, such as Orpheus, Diana, Jupiter, and Hecate. Nearly twenty cards for gem objects record the Gnostic figure Abrasax (Fig. 1). Glyptics such as these were powerful talismans for their owners.

Fig. 2. Glass paste glyptic cameo of Theodore Tyro or Theodore the General, Slaying Dragon, 13th century. Athens, Benaki Museum (GE 13521).

The traditional use of spiritual amulets was also adopted by Christians using Christian symbols and themes.[3] Christian iconography on glyptics include the triumphant Archangel Michael or Saint George, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the Good Shepherd. One cameo of opaque black glass made in the 13th century depicts Saint Theodore transfixing the dragon and well represents the preference for saintly imagery on later cameos (Fig. 2).[4] The inventory also revealed that there were nearly thirty examples of incised depictions of monograms on glyptics with a third of them being the Chi-Rho, a symbol for Christ consisting of the first two letters of the word “Christos” (Christ) in Greek.

The major collections represented in this medium include the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (over eighty objects) and the British Museum in London (nearly 125 objects. However, a large number of glyptics (over 140 objects) are recorded as “Location Unknown,” these items having been entered into the Index from major publications that did not provide the precise location at the time of publication.

Radiant Ivories for Both Secular and Religious Narratives

Fig. 3. Side panel of ivory casket depicting Tristan and Isolde spied on by the king and the unicorn being killed in the arms of a virgin, ca. 1310–30. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art (17.190.173a, b; 1988.16).

With nearly forty-seven hundred cards covering a little over thirty-one hundred objects, Ivory represented a more extensive category in this inventory project. The types of ivory objects recorded by the Index range from plaques, chess pieces, croziers, and triptychs to the more unusual oliphant (or hunter’s horn) to the handles of various utensils, and even a saddle. Some of the major collections represented in this medium are the Musée du Louvre and the Musée de Cluny in Paris, and the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Ivory objects were expertly carved in minute detail, usually from the tusks of elephants. In the Index database, ivory acts as a “parent medium,” an umbrella covering such materials as bone, walrus tusks, and antlers.[5]

Various motifs of courtly love were often depicted on ivory caskets, plaques, mirror cases, combs, and other fine domestic objects.[6] A preference for secular subjects on ivories emerged in the twelfth century when an influx of secular imagery was brought to Europe from the Middle East after the Crusades, as well as through a rise in vernacular literature, legends, and romances.[7] Entertaining stories such as the tale of the Virgin and the Unicorn provided plenty of thematic material to adorn precious ivory objects. They often offered a double meaning or moral lesson, as in the story of Tristan and Isolde depicted on an early 14th-century ivory casket now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which warns against temptations of lust (Fig. 3).[8]

Fig. 4. Ivory statuette of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, Suckling Type, or Virgo Lactans, ca. 1325–50. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery (1949.100).

Despite their popularity, secular ivories are fewer in number than devotional works of art in ivory. Roughly a quarter of the ivory objects recorded in the Index are representations of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. This figure rises to more three quarters when we add individual figures of Christ or the Virgin Mary. One type seen rather frequently is that of the Virgin nursing the infant Christ—known in Latin as the Virgo Lactans—which the Index categorizes among the many “types” of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. In the database, the subject heading Virgin Mary and Christ Child, Suckling Type is attached to over 290 Work of Art records. More than forty of these are ivory. This Virgo Lactans iconographic type is exemplified by a 14th-century ivory statuette in the Yale University Art Gallery, which displays an intimate and lifelike relationship between mother and child (Fig. 4). Thus, the devotional message is made personal.

The Project Continues

Encompassing eight drawers of roughly one thousand cards each, “Painting” proved to be an abundant medium, but “Illuminated Manuscript” is by far the largest medium category in the Index, filling fifty-six of the photograph drawers. Medieval art objects encountered in these two categories range from painted icons and altarpieces to a wide variety of liturgical manuscripts and other illuminated books numbering perhaps in the thousands. The inventory of these and other remaining categories—including those comprising in situ works of monumental art, such as “Mosaic” and “Fresco”—will continue after this summer.

As a “living archive” that covers more than a millennium of artistic creation, the Index of Medieval Art has always been improved and expanded by the interactions of the cataloguers who create it with the with researchers who use it. Creating these inventories has been an illuminating way to participate in that process and to learn more about the contents of the Index card catalogue being prepared for entry into the online database. This project was challenging at times, due to the sheer breadth of the paper files, but it has been an invaluable undertaking for the ongoing process of research and digitization, and will improve accessibility to the records contained in this century-old archive of medieval art.


Michele Mesi is a graduate student at Rutgers University studying Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Preservation. From Rutgers University, she also holds a Bachelor’s degree in English with studies in Art History and in Digital Communication, Information, and Media. Her interests include art conservation, archival processing, and working with rare books and manuscripts.


See Part 1 written by Ryan Gerber.

[1] The Index of Medieval Art follows the standards for material description established by the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT). See the Art & Architecture Thesaurus® Online, https://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/.

[2] O. Neverov and A. Durandin, Antique Intaglios in the Hermitage Collection (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1976), 7.

[3] Neverov and Durandin, Antique Intaglios, 8.

[4] The Index records the iconography in question as Theodore Tyro or Theodore the General, Slaying Dragon.

[5] See the glossary entry on the Index database Medium browse list for “ivory.”

[6] J. Lowden and J. Cherry, Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008), 122.

[7] R. H. Randall, “Popular Romances Carved in Ivory,” in Images in Ivory: Precious Objects of the Gothic Age (Detroit Institute of the Arts, 1997), 63.

[8] Randall, “Popular Romances,” 67–68.

Call for Proposals: The Index at Kalamazoo 2019

Call for Proposals

54th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 9 to 12, 2019

Sponsored by the Index of Medieval Art, Princeton University

A Roundtable

Last Supper of Christ, miniature from the ca 1300 Gladzor Gospels (Los Angeles, Charles E. Young Research Library, Armenian 1, p. 156)
Last Supper of Christ, miniature from the ca 1300 Gladzor Gospels (Los Angeles, Charles E. Young Research Library, Armenian 1, p. 156)

Encountering Medieval Iconography in the Twenty-First Century: Scholarship, Social Media, and Digital Methods

Organizers: M. Alessia Rossi and Jessica Savage (Index of Medieval Art, Princeton University)

Stemming from the launch of the new database and enhancements of search technology and social media at the Index of Medieval Art, this roundtable addresses the many ways we encounter medieval iconography in the twenty-first century. We invite proposals from emerging scholars and a variety of professionals who are teaching with, blogging about, and cataloguing medieval iconography. This discussion will touch on the different ways we consume and create information with our research, shed light on original approaches, and discover common goals.

Participants in this roundtable will give short introductions (5-7 minutes) on issues relevant to their area of specialization and participate in a discussion on how they use online resources, such as image databases, to incorporate the study of medieval iconography into their teaching, research, and public outreach. Possible questions include: What makes an online collection “teaching-friendly” and accessible for student discovery? How does social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and blogging, make medieval image collections more visible? How do these platforms broaden interest in iconography and connect users to works of art? What are the aims and impact of organizations such as, the Index, the Getty, the INHA, the Warburg, and ICONCLASS, who are working with large stores of medieval art and architecture information? How can we envisage a wider network and discussion of professional practice within this specialized area?

Please send a 250-word abstract outlining your contribution to this roundtable and a completed Participant Information Form (available via the Congress Submissions website: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress/submissions) by September 15 to M. Alessia Rossi (marossi@princeton.edu) and Jessica Savage (jlsavage@princeton.edu). More information about the Congress can be found here: https://wmich.edu/medievalcongress.

Matter Matters

Third in a series of short blog posts introducing new features of our online database

Have you tried out our Medium filter yet? As part of our ongoing series introducing specific features of our database to assist you in developing research strategies, let us direct your attention to the Medium field. First, you may ask, what exactly do we mean by “Medium”? In the Index database, “Medium” refers both to the materials that compose the work of art and to the methods of facture or technique employed in its creation. As Herbert Kessler rightly observes, “matter mattered in the Middle Ages,” and we at the Index wish to foster exciting new scholarship related to the iconography of materials.[1]  A cursory glance at our Medium category under the “Browse” tab reveals an extraordinary array of materials and techniques. Objects may include materials ranging from “acacia” wood to “zeiler sandstone,” and all these materials might have been “hammered” and “punched,” or “chiseled” and “incised,” or subjected to many other possible means of manipulation.

But what if you are not ready for this level of specificity? For more general Medium searches, we have devised a series of basic category terms to help you find what you need: “stone,” “gems,” “wood,” “ivory,” “metal,” “enamel,” and “textile.” For example, let’s say you’re interested in representations of the Virgin Mary in any kind of stone. A keyword search for “Virgin Mary” on the database homepage will yield thousands of results in all media. So, if you want to limit your results to images in stone, simply find the “Filters” tab under “Advanced Search” and select “stone” under the Medium filter. Click on “Search,” and you will reduce your list to 1,752 records.

Example 1
Example 1

Now what if you know that you’re searching for representations of the Virgin Mary in a specific kind of stone? This time, let’s say you’re looking for marble sculpture. Instead of sifting through all 1,752 records for marble examples, just try selecting “marble” in the Medium filter. This should bring your results down to a mere 410 records.

Nativity, Jamb capital in portal of west façade. Saint-Trophime, Arles. 1160-1180.
Nativity, Jamb capital in portal of west façade. Saint-Trophime, Arles. 1160-1180.

You can also try refining your search with another filter. Interested in marble representations of the Virgin produced in medieval France? Add “France” in the Location filter, and you’ll narrow your results to 55 records.

Example 2
Example 2

So, whether you’re searching within broad categories or examining specific materials and techniques, try using the database’s Medium filter to adjust your search to your research interests.

Here are a few additional pointers:

  • When conducting iconographic research on manuscripts, if you wish to narrow your search according to how the images were rendered, select “Manuscript” in the Work of Art type filter and then select a more specific term from the Medium filter, such as “illumination,” “color wash,” or “drawing.”
  • You can always add more than one term to any filter. So, for example, if you want to search for items that include both copper and gold, you can add both “copper” and “gold” to the filter with the Filter Options set to “MATCH ALL FILTERS.” If, on the other hand, you want to search for items that include either copper or gold, then add both “copper” and “gold” to the Medium filter with the Filter Options set to “MATCH ANY FILTER.”
  • In the Index database, we make the distinction between regular gemstones and gemstones that bear images. Thus, figured gems are identified as glyptics. For example, a thirteenth-century head reliquary of Saint Eustace in the British Museum contains an amethyst stone among the gems on the fillet ornamentation, and therefore has “amethyst” listed under the Medium heading in the record. In contrast, the stunning Late-Antique intaglio at Dumbarton Oaks that bears a depiction of Christ is identified as “amethyst glyptics” under Medium.

Amethyst intaglio portrait of Christ. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
Amethyst intaglio portrait of Christ. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

So, as you undertake your research with us, we hope that you’ll give the Medium filter a try. As always, please feel free to send us questions or comments about any aspect of the IMA database. Contact us at theindex@princeton.edu. Matter matters…and so does your feedback!

[1] Herbert Kessler, Seeing Medieval Art (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2004), 14.

Mind Your Language!

Second in a series of short blog posts introducing new features of our online database

Have you tried our Language Filter yet? Since we at the Index of Medieval Art realize that some of the search features available to users of the new database may be unfamiliar, we thought that we ought to take some time to recommend and explain a few of them. This time, let’s discuss your use of language, shall we? Specifically, did you know that you can filter your searches to look for images that appear in the context of a certain language? Well, you can!

Joseph of Arimathea from the late 11th-century Hamilton Lectionary (Morgan Library M. 639, fol. 15r).
Joseph of Arimathea from the late 11th-century Hamilton Lectionary (Morgan Library M. 639, fol. 15r).

Say you’re interested in images of Joseph of Arimathea, for example, whether in a scene—such as the Deposition or the Entombment—or as an isolated figure. You might start with a simple keyword search for “Arimathea” on the database homepage, or you could also use the “Terms” tab on the “Advanced Search” page, checking “Description” and “Subject” in the “Search Fields” checklist, a strategy that currently yields a whopping 735 results.

Now let’s try using one of the filters. Simply switch to the “Filters” tab on the “Advanced Search” page. Feel free to explore, and try all or any of the filters. For the purposes of this demonstration, however, we’re thinking about language, so let’s start by narrowing our search to manuscripts. Simply select “Manuscript” in the Work of Art Type Filter (Example 1), then click “Search” again. You’ll discover that, in this case, you have nearly halved the search results to 373, but that’s still a lot of records to consider.

Example 1, database search
Example 1

Now here comes the exciting part! If you know that you’re interested in a particular linguistic context, then you can add the Language Filter to your Advanced Search. There are currently 48 languages to choose from in the Index of Medieval Art database. For this demonstration, we’ve specified Greek (Example 2), so we’re searching for the word “Arimathea” where it appears in either the Subject field or the Description field, only in records for which the Work of Art Type is “Manuscript” and the language of the manuscript is “Greek.” Click “Search,” and you’ll discover that you have been able to filter your results down to a manageable 32 records!

Example 2, database search
Example 2

Simple, n’est-ce pas?

You can easily change the Language filter to compare results from one language to another. Changing Greek to Armenian yields ten results. Church Slavonic yields six. Filtering for some languages may return nothing, others quite a lot. Latin, for example, returns 233 results, so you might want to add another filter to your search. For the time being, only the languages of manuscripts are identified in the database. Eventually, however, the Index database will identify the language or languages of every object that incorporates the written word.

You might have noticed that names of some languages include date ranges, as in “Middle English (1100–1500).” Although such dates can seem arbitrary, we try to differentiate among the stages of a language’s development. If you’re curious about how the Index defines a language, or about what sources we cite, you can click on the language name in the Language field of a Work of Art record. This will take you to a page where you can read the Language Details. There you’ll also find citations and external reference codes (Glottolog and ISO 639-3). On that page, there is also a list of all Work of Art References that include that language.

So, start exploring, and be sure to try out the filters available in the new Index of Medieval Art database. Also, please let us know what you think…but mind your language!

Did You Know? Patron Edition

First in a series of short blog posts introducing the new features of our online database

Female donor in the margin of a 15th century Missal (Princeton University Library, Kane 44, no. 1).
Female donor in the margin of a 15th century Missal (Princeton University Library, Kane 44, no. 1).

Did you know that you can search The Index of Medieval Art for information about patrons of medieval art? The Index records both identified and unidentified patrons, the latter entered as grouping terms for types of patrons (Male, Female, Couple) and major monastic orders, such as Augustinian, Benedictine, and Carmelite. There are also general headings for anonymous male and female patrons (Male, unidentified and Female, unidentified). Names of churches, monasteries, and abbeys are given by their proper titles, such as Canterbury Cathedral, but might be further identified by location (e.g. Abbaye d’Anchin [Pecquencourt, France]).

For an overview of our patron headings, click on Browse at the top of the Index landing page. This will bring you to a list of over 900 names and grouping terms sorted in alphabetical order. To reach a specific entry, type the first few letters of a name into the search line at the top of the list. For instance, typing in “Blanche” will bring you to all Blanches from Burgundy, Castile, France, Navarre, and also the late 14th-century Countess of Geneva. Clicking on any patron heading will return a glossary entry comprising a biographical note with dates, alternate names of the patron, a bibliographic citation, an external reference for the authority source, and all the work of art examples linked to that patron.

Patron glossary entry for Blanche of Navarre (1331–1398).
Patron glossary entry for Blanche of Navarre (1331–1398).

Our patron entries are formatted in keeping with standard biographical authorities, such as the Library of Congress Name Authority File, the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), and Oxford References. Patrons are identified in the Index database by their roles and dates when these are known. When performing an Advanced Search in the “Terms” screen, you may prefer to keep the Match Type set to “Default,” which will search all parts of the heading. In the “Terms” window, a search can be formulated with keywords such as “Pope,” “Doge,” or “Prince,” using “Patron” in Search Fields to locate medieval patrons by their role. Similar keywords, along with keywords for place indicators like “Monastery” or “Convent,” can be searched against the “Patron Note” field, which will search the biographical notes in the patron glossary.

Many of the monastic patrons contain their locations in parentheses after the name of the community, so countries of patronage activity can also be searched as keywords. For instance, searching against “Patron” or “Patron Notes” with the keyword “Italy” returns over 150 records. This indicates artwork results for a patron who was active in Italy. From here, in the “Filters” window, the Date Slider can be used to refine results. The “Terms” search can be refined with any of the additional filters, including “Location,” “Medium,” “Style/ Culture,” and “Work of Art Type.”

Are you interested in finding out which female patrons were active in France in the 14th century?

In the Advanced Search “Terms” screen, enter the keyword “Female” and choose the Search Field “Patron” (keeping Match Type set to “Default,” as recommended).

Then, go to “Filters,” select “France” as a Location, and set the Date Slider to 1300 and 1399.

This search should yield 27 examples, where a female patron is connected to the 14th century work made in any part of France.

*In results, please note that work of art records without images usually indicate the Main record.

As you search for patrons in the new Index of Medieval Art database, bear in mind that visual representations of patrons are found in the Subject field. To find images of patrons, you can browse or search the Subject field with the keyword “Donor.” To read more about medieval patronage practices in general, you might find the Index’s 2013 conference publication Patronage, Power, and Agency in Medieval Art of interest. Enjoy refining your searches and browsing the range of patrons we record in the Index! And please remember that we are always happy to have your feedback. Get in touch with us at theindex@princeton.edu.

The Iconography of Darkness at the Crucifixion

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that, at the moment Christ died, darkness swept over the land for three hours (Matthew 27:45). The foreboding skies at Christ’s crucifixion were also recorded in Luke 23:44-45 and Mark 15:33. Mark’s account, thought to have been written around the year 70 CE, was likely the earliest.[1] Some scholars have reasoned that this midday phenomenon was an actual eclipse, because the passage in Luke reports that darkness fell over the land when “the sun was eclipsed” (“τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος”) (Luke 23:45). However, the passage is usually translated “the sun was darkened.” The verb is in the passive voice, as is the verb “ἐσκοτίσθη” used in other versions of the Greek text, and both words can mean “was darkened” or “was obscured.”[2] No matter how we may interpret the words relating the phenomenon, and no matter whether it is possible to attribute the darkness thus described to a real astronomical event, scriptural hours of daytime darkness over Golgotha presented an iconographic opportunity to medieval artists depicting the Crucifixion.

In manuscripts and painted works of art that aimed to depict the event, color was frequently exploited to illustrate darkness and to create a dramatic setting. Across media, the celestial bodies of the sun and the moon were incorporated into the skies above the crucifixion, not only to signal darkness at daytime but also to imbue the scenes with a rich cosmological significance.

Figure 1. Detail of the Crucifixion. Rabbula Gospels. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 56, fol. 13r (Photo. Wikimedia Commons).
Figure 1. Detail of the Crucifixion. Rabbula Gospels. Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 56, fol. 13r (Photo. Wikimedia Commons).

An especially early example appears in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels from the late sixth century. In this manuscript, the Crucifixion includes a partly eclipsed Sun and a Moon with a face against a remarkably light sky; a sliver of shaded pigment at the top suggests darkness (Figure 1). From antiquity, the sun and moon were associated with power. In early medieval crucifixion scenes they represented God’s cosmic anger at the death of Christ.[3] Throughout the Middle Ages, personifications of the Sun and Moon became regular characters at the Crucifixion, positioned as sorrowful figures mourning Christ’s death. The placement of the Sun and Moon respectively at the right and left arms of the cross came to be read typologically as the Old and New Testaments.[4] After about 850, they could also be seen as allegorical representations of Church and Synagogue.[5]

Figure 2. Sacramentary of Henry II. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm.4456, fol. 15r (Photo. Wikimedia Commons).
Figure 2. Sacramentary of Henry II. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm.4456, fol. 15r (Photo. Wikimedia Commons).

The Ottonian Sacramentary of Henry II sets the Crucifixion scene against a deep purple background, a striking hue used to set a somber mood and suggest darkness (Figure 2). Busts of the personifications Sun and Moon sit on the arms of the cross. The Sun, labeled SOL and sporting a rayed headpiece, and the veiled Moon, labeled LUNA, both turn away from the scene and weep into their draped hands. The strong background color effectively conveys the darkness of this scene emphasized by the dramatic gestures of the Sun and Moon.

Medieval artists sometimes set the same iconographic features within a flattened space of gold or patterned backgrounds. A leaf from the Potocki Psalter, made in Paris in the mid-13th century, sets the Crucifixion against a gold background (Figure 3). Christ is flanked above by the sun and moon and below by the Virgin Mary and the Evangelist John. Within this composition, the three main figures hover between time and space, darkness suggested only by the presence of the partly obscured sun and the crescent moon.

Figure 3. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 57.707 (Photo. Boston Museum of Fine Arts).
Figure 3. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 57.707 (Photo. Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

Figure 4. New York, Morgan Library, M. 300, fol. 3r (Photo. Index of Medieval Art/ Morgan Library).
Figure 4. New York, Morgan Library, M. 300, fol. 3r (Photo. Index of Medieval Art/ Morgan Library).

Similarly, in a Crucifixion scene painted around 1400 to 1410 in a Register of Coiners and Minters from Avignon, a richly patterned background of gold scrolls avoids any illusion of a dim sky (Figure 4). The red sun and the moon’s countenance in the upper corners of the miniature are the only clues that the ornamental ground is actually simulated “darkness.” In both miniatures, decorative and luminous backgrounds highlight the central features of the scene so that the Crucifixion image becomes a place of mediation, the background “darkness” metaphorically positioned between an earthly space and a shift in the cosmos at the moment of Christ’s death.

Images of darkness at the Crucifixion can be found in the Index database by any of several possible search strategies. One method is to perform an advanced search using the keyword “Crucifixion” while filtering with the subject “Sun and Moon.” This search returns over 380 results. Executing the search again with the subject “Personification: Sun and Moon” returns around 220 examples in a variety of media, including ivory plaques, glyptics, and frescoes. “Personification: Sun and Moon” is the subject used by the Index for records concerning works on which both celestial bodies have facial features. Using words like “stars” or “starry,” background elements that can also suggest a dark sky may be recorded in the Index’s descriptions of such works.

Figure 5. New York, Morgan Library, H.3, fol. 206r (Photo. Index of Medieval Art/ Morgan Library).
Figure 5. New York, Morgan Library, H.3, fol. 206r (Photo. Index of Medieval Art/ Morgan Library).

With the advent of the Index of Medieval Art’s new database, thumbnail images are now visible with search results, allowing the researcher to review works of art at a glance. Thus, a researcher looking into images of the Crucifixion will be able to notice the gradual change in the later medieval period in the West, when images of the Crucifixion began to represent the three-hour darkness as a true night sky. In a Book of Hours made in Paris about 1490, a soft pattern of gold stars with the sun and moon dot a dark blue sky to create the illusion of evening (Figure 5). Other Crucifixion scenes that a researcher may notice while thumbnail browsing show cloudy, dark, and emotive skies that convey darkness without the sun or moon. These atmospheric scenes offer a remarkable and naturalistic, if not peaceful, departure from the earlier ones with their grief-stricken personifications of the Sun and Moon.

The starry night sky casts a familiar source of light over a recognizable scene, and these astronomical bodies inspired fascination in medieval minds still forming theories about what those bodies might actually be. Nevertheless, the symbols of the Sun and Moon, while signaling darkness and the passage of time, also imparted emotional weight, persisting in iconography not only to adhere to scriptural tradition, but also to emphasize the significance of Christ’s death.

Further Reading

Hautecoeur, Louis. “Soleil et la lune dans les crucifixions.” Revue archéologique, ser. 5, XIV (1921): 13-32

Schiller, Gertrude. “The Crucifixion.” In vol. 2 of Iconography of Christian Art, 88–164. London: Lund Humphries, 1972.

Nickel, Helmut. “The Sun, the Moon, and an Eclipse: Observations on The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John, by Hendrick Ter Brugghen.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 42 (2007): 121–24.

[1] The Gospels report three other supernatural events that occurred during the Crucifixion: the temple veil was split in two; various earthquakes shook the land; and the souls of the dead rose from their graves. See related subjects in the Index of Medieval Art: Christ: Crucifixion, Earthquake; Christ: Crucifixion, Resurrection of Dead, and Veil of Temple: rending.

[2] Bible Translation. “David Robert Palmer trans., The Gospel of Luke: Part of The Holy Bible.” Accessed 30 March 2018. Bibletranslation.ws/trans/lukewgrk.pdf. See especially p. 116, n. 307.

[3] Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman (London: Lund Humphries, 1972), 2:94.

[4] This interpretation was promoted by St. Augustine (354–430 CE). Schiller, 109.

[5] Schiller, 110.

Widow’s Window to the Presentation: Prophetess Anna in the Temple

Figure 1. Presentation of Christ in Canterbury Cathedral, stained glass window n. XV, 18
Figure 1. Presentation of Christ in Canterbury Cathedral, stained glass window n. XV, 18

Throughout the Middle Ages, the feast of the Presentation of Christ was observed on February 2nd, where it gradually absorbed the rites of the Purification of the Virgin.[1] Incorporating blessed candles and certain songs, the feast came to be known as Candlemas. The only gospel writer to describe the Presentation of Christ in the Temple was Luke in the second chapter of his Gospel account (Luke 2:22–39). Luke writes that, in accordance with Jewish tradition, parents were required to bring an acceptable offering in exchange for the priest’s redemptive blessing on their child. Luke notes that “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” would fulfill the sacrifice (Luke 2:24). In Presentation scenes, the gathered doves, usually held by Joseph, signal Christ’s restoration under Mosaic Law. Over time, lit candles at this same ritual came to mark the Virgin’s cleansing and reentry into the temple.[2] In a stained-glass window in Canterbury Cathedral, we find Joseph holding both implements at the far left, a visual sign of the combined purpose of their visit (Figure 1).

When the Holy Family approaches the altar, Luke records two mystical occurrences that concern key witnesses in the temple. First, Simeon, the named priest from Jerusalem, prophesies the divinity of the Christ Child.[3] Another prophetic utterance comes from the lips of an unlikely source, the temple’s aged widow, Anna the prophetess. Luke tells us that Anna fasted and prayed there without ceasing. Anna is the New Testament’s only prophetess, and her privileged glimpse of the important ritual uniquely connects her to the childhood of Christ.

The Presentation is Anna’s one shining moment in the Gospels. In the Index of Medieval Art there are over 960 examples of the subject Christ: Presentation, and at least 330 include Anna as a secondary figure in the scene. We discover varied depictions of Anna in these medieval images. She is depicted as a scroll-bearing prophetess; as proxy to the presentation ritual, handling the different ritual items; or she may be simply shown among the other women surrounding the Virgin Mary. Despite her prominent role at the Presentation of Christ, Anna’s portrayal in medieval images can be perplexing. It seems medieval artists, who knew about her visionary role at the Presentation, could choose to emphasize or de-emphasize Anna as a prophetess based on tradition, context, or perhaps even their own interpretations of her significance. Several Presentation scenes also include a woman near the altar, and Indexers have often identified her as a female attendant, questioning her identity as the prophetess in iconographic descriptions.[4] Thus was born the usual Index reading of this female figure: “probably Anna.”

Figure 2. Presentation scene in the Mont-Saint-Michel Sacramentary (Normandy, 1050-1065). New York, Morgan Library, M.641, fol. 18r.
Figure 2. Presentation scene in the Mont-Saint-Michel Sacramentary (Normandy, 1050-1065). New York, Morgan Library, M.641, fol. 18r.

Because of the inconsistency of representations of the Presentation, it is not always easy to identify Anna in medieval images. Moreover, Luke’s account offers few details about her, other than that she is:

  • the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Aser
  • “far advanced in years”
  • long widowed (for over 84 years)
  • found in the temple, both day and night, fasting and praying
  • one of the first testifiers of the divinity of Christ and declares it during the presentation (not elaborated further)

Analysis of Presentation scenes does reveal a few key details consistently associated with Anna: the presence of a halo; her scroll, which expounds her part in the prophecy; her interaction with presentation/purification implements, including the doves and candles; and her advanced age, sometimes suggested by her modest wimple. One or more of these details could be enough for a positive ID of our prophetess. Another sign is her speaking gesture, as in the Presentation miniature in the Romanesque Mont-Saint-Michel Sacramentary, in which Anna’s hands are shown outstretched in a wide statement of praise (Figure 2). This miniature also exemplifies an iconographic conundrum that sometimes accompanies Anna: a second nimbed and veiled female figure stands just behind Joseph, and she is carrying two doves in draped hands. Is this a second Anna? Or is this simply a sanctified female attendant? This female assistant is doing what many later Annas do in bearing the sacrificial birds, so the context with which we identify Anna becomes increasingly important.

Figure 3. Anna holding inscribed scroll at the Presentation of Christ, wood panel by the 15c. Byzantine Painter. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.67.8.
Figure 3. Anna holding inscribed scroll at the Presentation of Christ, wood panel by the 15c. Byzantine Painter. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.67.8.

Anna is one of the first people, even the first woman, to reveal Christ’s destiny, but her exact words are omitted from Luke’s account. We know that she “spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). However, since Anna’s actual words are not recorded, her scrolls present a number of different inscriptions. An Index search reveals some of the most intriguing ones. In the fifth-century sanctuary apse mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, Anna’s scroll is inscribed BEATVS VENTER QVI TE PORTAVIT (Luke 11:27), meaning “Blessed is the womb that bore thee.” In a late twelfth-century mosaic in the Cathedral of Monreale, Anna holds a scroll inscribed POSIT(US) EST HIC I(N) RVINA(M) (Luke 2:34), repeating the words first said by Simeon, “This child is set for the fall.” In a fifteenth-century panel by the artist known as the “Byzantine Painter,” Anna holds a scroll inscribed (in Greek) “This child created Heaven and Earth” (Figure 3). And in one emotive declaration in a ca. 1240 Psalter from Hildesheim, Anna’s scroll is inscribed in Latin, EXULTATUIT COR MEUM (I Samuel, 02:01, also known as the Canticle of Anna), meaning “My heart hath rejoiced” (Stuttgart, Landesbibliothek, Cod. Don. 309, fol. 37r).

Figure 4. Prophetess Anna holding pseudo-inscribed scroll at the Presentation of Christ in the T'oros Roslin Gospels. Dated 1262. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, W.539, fol. 211r.
Figure 4. Prophetess Anna holding pseudo-inscribed scroll at the Presentation of Christ in the T’oros Roslin Gospels. Dated 1262. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, W.539, fol. 211r.

Anna’s scroll has even been used to identify her by name, as in the presentation scene on the ca. 1365 Florentine Ashmolean Predella, from a private collection in Tuscany, with a scroll inscribed “ANNA PROFETESSA DEO GRATIAS AMEN” (“Prophetess Anna, Thanks be to God”). In this case, Anna’s index finger is elegantly lifted upward to indicate from whom her proselytizing originates. In other examples, Anna’s scroll can be completely blank, or filled with a pseudo-inscription. In the Armenian T’oros Roslin Gospels, the scroll expands into neat folds revealing simple red rulings (Figure 4).

The new advanced filter options offered by the Index database can reveal interesting trends within the Anna images recorded by the Index. I performed a keyword search for “Anna,” filtering by the subject Christ: Presentation, and restricted the search to fifteenth century examples (setting the date slider at 1400 to 1499). I limited these examples further with the Work of Art Type filter set to “Manuscript.” This way, I found over 60 records of interest describing fifteenth century illuminations that include this scene.

I narrowed these results further by adding a second subject filter with one of the Index’s grouped terms, Candle: held by Prophetess Anna. I found that, with each refinement, I was able to reconstruct Anna’s changing representation in medieval iconography. Curiously, in several of these late medieval examples, Anna is holding both a candle and a dove, and she is directly behind the Virgin Mary (not Simeon), displacing Joseph completely. These three-character scenes of the Presentation make up a good portion of later examples, and they underscore Anna’s union with the Holy Family’s first official appearance. In one such image, a fifteenth-century Book of Hours made in Paris, Anna is holding a candle in her right hand while playfully balancing a basket of birds on her head. A talented multitasker, Anna has, in a sense, usurped Joseph’s gift-bearing role (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Prophetess Anna balancing basket of three doves on her head and holding candle at the Presentation of Christ. Book of Hours (ca. 1400). New York, Morgan Library S.9, fol. 79r.
Figure 5. Prophetess Anna balancing basket of three doves on her head and holding candle at the Presentation of Christ. Book of Hours (ca. 1400). New York, Morgan Library S.9, fol. 79r.

No matter how she appears—as a wise widow bearing her scroll, or as a female witness bearing the implements of the impending ritual—the prophetess Anna is an exemplary New Testament woman. Through her time-honored vows of chastity, piety, and obedience to God, virtuous qualities brought out in her varied iconography, she presents a model of behavior for the young mother.

Further Reading

Shorr, Dorothy C. “The Iconographic Development of the Presentation in the Temple.” The Art Bulletin 28, no. 1 (1946): 17–32.

Schiller, Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 2, The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, trans. Janet Seligman (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1972): 90–94.

Elliott, J. K. “Anna’s Age (Luke 2:36–37).” Novum Testamentum, 30, Fasc. 2 (Apr., 1988), 100–102.

Hammond, Joseph. “Tintoretto and the ‘Presentation of Christ’: The Altar of the Purification in Santa Maria Dei Carmini, Venice.” Artibus Et Historiae 34, no. 68 (2013): 203–217.

“Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art & Architecture, edited by Murray, Peter, Linda Murray, and Tom Devonshire Jones: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Witherington III, Ben. “Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah.” Accessed 2 February 2018: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/mary-simeon-or-anna-who-first-recognized-jesus-as-messiah/

Notes

[1] From at least the fourth century this ritual was celebrated as a post-purification feast, known as Hypapante, which Justinian set 40 days after the feast of the Epiphany, or on February 14.

[2] For the best study of the development of this iconography, see Dorothy C. Shorr, “The Iconographic Development of the Presentation in the Temple,” Art Bulletin 28 (1946): 20–46.

[3] Simeon holds the infant in his arms and instantly says to the Virgin Mary, “Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel…,” and representations of Simeon are associated with the text Nunc Dimittis, also known as the Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:34–35).

[4] Shorr notes that, in most northern medieval examples after the thirteenth-century, Anna’s place was taken over by a young handmaiden (Shorr, 1946, p. 27).

 

 

 

 

The Phoenix Takes Flight

Phoenix surrounded by flames, from the Ashmole Bestiary, English, early 13th c. Oxford: Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, fol. 68r
Phoenix surrounded by flames, from the Ashmole Bestiary, English, early 13th c. Oxford: Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 1511, fol. 68r

The Index of Medieval Art is proud to announce that the new database platform is now in beta. Project Phoenix is the culmination of years of planning and development in collaboration with Luminosity Labs. When we first conceived this project in the summer of 2014, we decided that we needed to develop a platform that was modular enough to build upon in the future. It was important to us that, as methods of study change, the tools we provide researchers must be able to evolve as well.

There are now more access points into our data. Our new advanced search and refinement tools will give our users much greater flexibility, so that results can be narrowed to isolate specific works of art. Users will now have the ability to target their queries with multiple factors—such as date, location, subject, media, and more—but with precise control.

The new platform also introduces a responsive design, meaning that the user interface can adapt to your device whether it is a large computer monitor or a smaller tablet. We estimate as much as 50% of our web traffic is from mobile devices such as iPads, so we are working to make sure that we can support the mobile experience.

This is just the start: we will be rolling out many additional features over the next few weeks and months. In the coming year we plan to introduce a new interface for navigating in situ works, as well as a new interface for exploring our subjects by hierarchical classification rather than keywords alone.

In 2018, we will also be implementing IIIF support for images. This will mean that works of art for which we have high-resolution images can be examined in greater detail. You will have the ability to zoom in and out, and to pan around the images, all from within our web application.

We invite you to try out our Project Phoenix beta to see what we’ve been working on. And please send us your feedback! We welcome your thoughts, but keep in mind that this is the beta stage of development, so not everything is working perfectly yet. Some features have not been fully implemented, and some may be disabled from time to time while we work to improve them.

In the meantime, the old, familiar database is still available to subscribers. This legacy database will continue to be available until we are comfortable that the new version can supersede the old one completely.

Thanks for your support and patience through these exciting times. We look forward to hearing from you about the new design!

Iconography and the Role of Wisdom

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)]

Wisdom supporting the arc of heaven. Stammheim Missal (1170s). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 64/97.MG.21, fol. 11r.
Wisdom supporting the arc of heaven. Stammheim Missal (1170s). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 64/97.MG.21, fol. 11r.

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.

Boethius led by Wisdom to the Throne of God. De consolatione philosophiae (ca. 1430). Morgan Library, M.396, fol. 239v.
Boethius led by Wisdom to the Throne of God. De consolatione philosophiae (ca. 1430). Morgan Library, M.396, fol. 239v.

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.

Wisdom crowning Solomon. Lothian Bible (ca. 1220). Morgan Library, M.791, fol. 288r.
Wisdom crowning Solomon. Lothian Bible (ca. 1220). Morgan Library, M.791, fol. 288r.

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.