In northern climes, the beginning of February used to be reliably miserable. It was always the time of year when the sedentary heart of winter was covered in forgetful snow, and we took refuge indoors while the wasteland outside was feeding a little life with dried tubers (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot). Groundhog Day is in early February for a reason. Every year, in our collective longing for an early return of spring, we eagerly anticipate the meteorological insights of a skittish marmot. And so, despite the unseasonably warm temperatures in Princeton this week, we couldn’t help but explore some imagery traditionally associated with the month of February.
In many manuscript calendar illustrations, the occupational image for February depicts an interior scene, a room in which figures warm themselves before a fireplace. Seated at the hearth, a female servant, or perhaps the woman of the house, stokes the fire. Often in such scenes, a man sits at a table spread with food and dishes. The Index of Medieval Art subject heading identifies this scene as the “Labors of the Month, February.” Certain components of this subject, such as “Fireplace,” “Table,” and “Feasting,” also have their own subject designations.
Other attributes common to the February warming scenes are figures performing such actions as blowing a bellows at the fire, cooking food in a pot over the flames, carrying bundled firewood indoors, or wearing heavy furs. A marginal miniature in the calendar of a fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Burgundy depicts a typical February scene with several of these domestic elements: a woman wearing a veiled headdress stokes a glowing fire in a simple stone fireplace while, behind her, a warmly dressed man seated at a draped table clings to a morsel of food (Fig. 1).
Searching the Index of Medieval Art database with simple keywords such as “fireplace,” and using the Subject Filter for “Labors of the Month, February,” will return a little more than seventy work of art records. Most of them appear in illuminated manuscripts. One such fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Paris or Flanders contains a February calendar page with two square miniatures of equal size in the lower margin. One of these paired miniatures shows the typical interior occupation of February, figures by the fire. The other shows the usual zodiac sign, Pisces, as a pair of fish lying head to tail with a line connecting them by their mouths. In the right margin, the artist created a comical moment: among the densely scrolled foliate borders, a man sitting on a fantastic flower raises his bare left foot toward some blazing logs (Fig. 2). In February, even marginalia need to warm their toes!
Other database filters will discover results illustrating February in different media, such as a man warming himself in the quatrefoil stone relief sculpture on the west façade of Amiens Cathedral. While this February figure sits and adjusts logs on the fire, his shoes are neatly placed in the foreground (Fig. 3). As is common for all twelve labors of the months, iconographic variants occur among these images, and monthly tasks are not fixed. Indoor cold weather occupations—including feasting, cooking, and baking—can be found in the previous months of January and December, often in similar compositions with fireplaces. February illustrations may also show outdoor scenes, such as slaughtering animals, fishing, digging fields, or pruning vines.
Keeping warm and dry during the winter months was a matter of survival for medieval people. Even today our good health and happiness are at risk in the winter. While its fires are long extinguished, this fine fifteenth- or sixteenth-century French limestone fireplace, today on display in the Met Cloisters, was likely once the architectural centerpiece of a home, and we can still imagine its appealing warmth (Fig. 4). Whether you are enjoying a restfully sedentary season or the official start of the spring semester has you thoroughly engaged in your own labors of the month, we wish you a warm and happy February!
As a victorious angel, defender, and leader of heavenly armies, Michael the Archangel is often depicted in medieval art as an armored soldier carrying such arms as a cross-inscribed shield, cross-staff, or the sword or spear he typically employs to fight the dragon in the “great battle of heaven” (Apocalypse 12:7–9; see the Index subject Apocalypse, Dragon Attacked by Michael). Outside of the apocalyptic combat scene, Michael also may be shown trampling and piercing the dragon as part of his overall iconography. This figuration of Michael as the triumphant archangel lent a devotional and meditative aspect to his veneration as an overcomer of evil, as is often clear in images related to the Christian feast of Michaelmas. The feast’s name in English derived from “Michael’s Mass” and is traditionally observed in some Western churches on the 29th of September. While Michaelmas was primarily celebrated to acknowledge the works of Michael the Archangel, this feast also celebrated the help and intercession of all angels. Michaelmas also bore secular significance for medieval people as a “quarter day” of the financial year, which signaled the fulfillment of various business obligations, and the close of the agricultural year (For more on this holiday, see Ben Johnson, Michaelmas, The Blog of Historic UK).
At this time of Michaelmas, a dive into the online collection of the Index of Medieval Art reveals a wealth of examples tied to the iconography of the revered archangel. The most common representation is of Michael the Archangel fighting the dragon. In the language of the Index, that’s Michael the Archangel, Transfixing Dragon. This subject heading is attached to nearly 300 works of art in the database applied to a variety of media, including a Romanesque limestone relief panel from Burgundy, now in the Louvre Museum in Paris (Fig. 1). A closely related subject, Michael the Archangel, Transfixing Satan, is applied to works of art in which the dragon has morphed into a devilish creature, usually shown with horns and clawed feet. Like the hapless dragon, this creature is similarly impaled and trampled! Exploring these two similar subjects reveals a later preference for the literal depiction of devils in place of dragons. Michael the Archangel also features in other important episodes, such as the biblical narrative of the Fall of Angels and the Last Judgment of Christ (Figs. 2 & 3). In Last Judgment scenes, Michael the Archangel is often shown holding the scales of justice laden with good and bad souls (See the Index subject Weighing of Soul).
A fifteenth-century alabaster
panel from England combines many aspects of Michael’s typical iconography: here,
wearing a suit of armor that resembles feathers, he also bears a shield and raises
his sword over the vanquished dragon. One weighing pan of his scales remains,
holding a devil head, while behind him, a crowned Virgin intercedes to
emphasize mercy with justice (Fig. 4).
In the Index database, Michael the Archangel is by far the best represented of the archangels, with thirteen subjects covering his various roles, from intercessor and commanding soldier to apparition in visions and legends. A common legendary context for Michael is that of the “Runaway Bull” in the Golden Legend. According to the legend, a wayward bull belonging to Garganus, a wealthy man from Siponto, is miraculously saved from the shot of an arrow, which instead reversed in midair and killed the huntsman. As an explanation for this strange occurrence, Michael the Archangel appears to a local bishop to reinforce the idea of grace at the bull’s saving and to tell him to build a church in his honor (Fig. 5). The hilltop sanctuary of San Michele del Gargano is still a popular site of pilgrimage in the town of Monte Sant’Angelo in southern Italy.
For a more general overview of the iconography of angels in the Index database, we encourage you to browse sections of the new subject classification network by clicking “Browse” and proceeding to the link for “Subject Classification.” From here, click on Religious Subjects, then Christianity, then Angels and Devils. In the sub-group of Angels, you will encounter a list of over twenty iconographic headings associated with various angels, including seraphs, cherubs, and several more subjects for angels engaged in specific actions, such as “Protecting Soul” and “Pursuing Devil.” On the left are further divisions for the four major archangels of Christian angelology—Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, and Michael—which list the individual subjects related to each. At the bottom of each authority for these subjects, you’ll see a bar for “Work of Art References” that will take you to the relevant work of art records.
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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). 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.
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.
 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.
 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, ), 168.
“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.
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.
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.
The traditional use of spiritual amulets was
also adopted by Christians using Christian symbols and themes.
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.
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
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.
Various motifs of courtly love were often depicted
on ivory caskets, plaques, mirror cases, combs, and other fine domestic objects.
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
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).
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.
The ways in which scholars research the iconographic traditions of the Middle Ages is continuously evolving. In order to address this, the Index of Medieval Art organized and sponsored a roundtable, Encountering Medieval Iconography in the Twenty-First Century: Scholarship, Social Media, and Digital Methods, at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. The five panelists briefly presented on the ways in which they incorporated iconography into their teaching, research, and curatorial work. They then participated in a discussion of how they use and develop online resources, such as image databases, to reach students and researchers. The result was a lively dialogue about how digital approaches can make medieval iconographic study more accessible to a diverse, global audience.
One of the first topics of discussion was the avenues by which viewers encounter medieval iconography in the twenty-first century. Anne Stanton, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri, raised the point that popular social media outlets and online databases are often the first portals through which many students gain access to medieval images and learn about subject matter in works of art. Many institutions have responded to this this fact by using social media platforms to broaden interest in iconography and connect users to works of art. The many vibrant examples of social media use in the field, ranging from museums to libraries, include the Getty, Dumbarton Oaks, and the British Library. Sabine Maffre, Curator of the Mandragore Database at the National Library of France, discussed developments at the library’s blog Gallica, which has been inviting professional bloggers to write posts about illuminations in order to diversify their audience and make their medieval image collections more visible.
Beyond questions of access, another change has occurred in the ways in which we think about iconography. Konstantina Karterouli, postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard University, presented an Artificial Intelligence (AI) project that the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection is developing with the goal of teaching computers to recognize the different architectural elements of a medieval building. Commenting on the wider potential of this approach, Maffre also noted that the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) staff have been working toward implementing automatic recognition of manuscript illuminations through AI. A contrasting approach to iconography, presented by Isabelle Marchesin of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA) at the Sorbonne in Paris, faces head-on the problem of offering something that AI still cannot provide: interpretations of specialized content. The OMCI (Ontology of Medieval Christianity in Images) project, founded and developed by Marchesin, is based on the concept that, beyond narrative and portraits, Christian medieval images implicitly refer to another level of signification that is ontological and strongly connected in this case to theology as a holistic system of explanation of the world.
One important takeaway from the roundtable was the recognition that the role of the iconographer itself is changing. As Professor Marina Vicelja of the University of Rijeka emphasized, rather than requiring the solitary work so often undertaken in the past, it could and should be seen in light of collaborations, interdisciplinary research, and international networks. A starting point could be the implementation of cross-discoverable databases, shared standardized vocabularies, and the use of platforms like Biblissima, a digital library and widely interoperable data cluster designed to gather and give access to the main iconographic and textual databases. These ideas inspired discussion of the difficult balance between the strategies used by database specialists and the kinds of usability expected by twenty-first century researchers. Karterouli strongly emphasized the importance of standardization in these endeavors to help retrieve information, and Vicelja stressed the necessity of integrating metadata in order to avoid misunderstandings.
In the twenty-first century, we find ourselves at a crossroads between traditional methods of iconographic study and the implementation of pioneering technologies such as AI. The potential for interoperable platforms to enhance the research experience could answer new expectations with new possibilities. While it can be difficult to strike a balance between time-tested approaches and new ideas, the tension is proof that the study of iconography is very much alive and evolving. We hope that the Index roundtable at Kalamazoo was only the first word in a vibrant and expansive dialogue among an international community of creators and consumers of information about medieval iconography.
King David is well represented in the Index of Medieval Art database, with close to 200 subject headings covering the various scenes of his life. He is most often depicted as a richly garmented king, often with his role as the psalmist suggested by his signature harp and crown. One variant of his iconography, which I encountered while cataloguing a historiated initial from an early sixteenth-century French Psalter, presents a familiar subject in the life of David, described by the Index as David, Communicating with God (Fig. 1). However, in this example, the kneeling David adds an extra gesture to his prayer routine. Where one would expect to find reverent folded hands, David emphatically points his finger to his protruding tongue!
While studying this initial, I decided to use the tools in
the updated Index database to explore how David’s pose and the purposeful indication
of his tongue were related to the psalm verse. In this Psalter, the initial D
for Dixi begins Vulgate Psalm 38, verse
2: Dixi custodiam vias meas; locutus sum
in lingua mea posuri ori meo custodiam cum consisteret peccator adversum me…
(Douay-Rheims Bible, accessed 22 February 2019, http://drbo.org/). Translated, this
reads “I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue. I have set guard to my mouth, when the sinner
stood against me.” The tongue is mentioned one more time in this psalm
at verse 5 with regard to speech, “I spoke with my tongue: O Lord, make me know
my end. And what is the number of my days: that I may know what is wanting of
me” (drbo.org). The image of David thus prefigures the textual passages of the psalm
in that both image and text suggest the speaking and offending capabilities of
the tongue. But, how often do we see David depicted with his tongue sticking
out? And can we find other contexts for his expressive gesture?
I entered a simple keyword search for “tongue” in the upper
right search bar on the Index database homepage and used
the Subject Filter to refine my results to David,
Communicating with God. Immediately, I located a much earlier scene from a
Parisian Bible in the Morgan Library dated to the first quarter of the
thirteenth century (Fig. 2). This initial D, also beginning Psalm 38, encloses
a beardless, crowned David, looking up toward the face of God and mirroring the
action of raised finger to outstretched tongue.
Since both of these images open Psalm 38, the presence of
magnified tongues seems intended to show that significant body part that David was
obliged to “sin not” with.
This connotation of the image is better understood in the context
of the medieval preoccupation with the peccata
linguae, or “sins of the tongue,” such as those assigned to fallen
characters in the Divine Comedy and
the Roman de la Rose. These
transgressions of speech include flattery, duplicity, evil counsel, discord,
and blasphemy. Medieval moralists also were concerned with sinful tongues: the
Franciscan John of Wales (d. 1285), for example, wrote a preaching treatise called
De Lingua (“The Tongue”), which
outlined the proper duties of a “good” tongue as to share in ethical knowledge
and to oppose its own natural “bad” inclinations.
In medieval art, depictions of sinful tongues like David’s can be found in figural representations of Slander, False Seeming, and other personifications of vice. A figure identified as the Unmerciful Judge sticks out his tongue in the lower margin of a 15th century Manuel des Péchés to illustrate the Exemplum, or lesson, for the Sins of Avarice and Covetousness (Fig. 3). His long, curled tongue and raised hands suggest how insistently he imparts this lesson on the vices. However, his prominent tongue is also inherently tied to his cruel speech, offering a visual metaphor of merciless judgment.
Wishing to investigate further the iconography associated
with Psalm 38, I used the Index database to browse through the numbered psalms
in the Subject Browse
List. Clicking the subject heading for Psalm 039 (Vulg., 038) revealed that a majority of the
illustrations depict David pointing to his mouth, a common way to represent
speech, but without his tongue sticking out. One such initial appears in the Noyon
Psalter, attributed to the Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, in the J.
Paul Getty Museum (MS. 66, fol. 41v). This suggests that the literal
representations of David’s tongue were the more unusual depiction. To take this
theory a step further, I repeated the keyword search for “mouth” and refined
the subject to David, Communicating with
God. This search yielded about 30 examples where David was indicating his
closed mouth, a subject that is particularly common in manuscript initials
associated with Psalm 38.
Medieval commentaries on Psalm 38 help to explain the popularity of this iconography. Theodoret’s Commentary on Psalm 38 notes the text’s emphasis on the sinfulness and “lowliness” of human nature and humanity’s need for deliverance, while Augustine wrote of the same psalm that, although the tongue was “prone to slip,” bridling it will help one stand against wicked enemies. Both commentators connected Psalm 38 to an episode in Samuel, where David was viciously pursued by Absalom and abused by Shimei, who threw sticks and stones at him while he fled from Jerusalem. That biblical narrative itself is sometimes found illustrating Psalm 38 (see the related Index subject heading David, Cursed by Shimei). In a manuscript of the Enarrationes in Psalmos, dating to the mid twelfth century, a historiated initial P encloses a crowned David covering his mouth while Shimei hurls stones at him (Fig. 4). Here, David’s cautious gesture and muted tongue show his restraint from sin, shedding light on the meaning of the gesture when it appears in the psalm initials.
Finally, I decided to broaden my search to locate all depictions of this particular body part with David. I repeated the keyword search for “tongue” and set the Subject Filter to David. This led me to a historiated initial in the twelfth century English manuscript of the Saint Albans Psalter and to another layer of iconographic context. Here, the initial E for Erucatavit, beginning Vulgate Psalm 44, encloses a seated and crowned David, who raises a pen in his right hand and with his left index finger points to his extended tongue (Fig. 5). Written in red ink above the incipit is the rubric Lingua me calamus scribae, taken from verse 2 of that Psalm, which can be translated as, “My tongue is the pen of a scrivener”(drbo.org). This verse of Psalm 44 is preceded by the mention of David’s verbum bonum, or the “good word” uttered from his heart to the king (mea regi), suggesting that goodness issues from him and through him, by way of tongue and pen.
With regard to this Vulgate Psalm 44, Augustine comments,
What likeness, my brethren, what likeness, I ask, has the “tongue” of God with a transcriber’s pen? What resemblance has “the rock” to Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:4) What likeness does the “lamb” bear to our Saviour (John 1:29), or what “the lion” to the strength of the Only-Begotten? (Revelation 5:5)
(Augustine, Expositions, Digital Psalms version, p. 264)
Today, we enjoy ample use of emojis, which add expressive
meaning to our messages to one another. In the Middle Ages, manuscript
illuminators did not miss the opportunity to illustrate textual passages with similarly
expressive visual cues in images, which also linked to the complex layers of
meaning readers anticipated finding in the psalms. Although David’s gesture to
his closed mouth seems to be a relatively common composition, the emphasis on
his stuck-out tongue in certain depictions speaks just as expressively of its
sinful capabilities as it does of its usefulness as an obedient tool.
The investigation of David’s “emoji” highlights how researchers can look for specific iconographic motifs in the Index by combining keyword searches in the description field and filtering with controlled headings in Advanced Search options. For advice on your own research topic and forming search strategies using the Index database, send us a Research Inquiry. We’ll be 🙂 to hear from you!
Baika, Gabriella I. “Lingua
Indiciplinata: A Study of Transgressive Speech in the ‘Romance of the Rose’
and the ‘Divine Comedy.’” PhD diss., University of Pittsburgh, 2007.
Craun, Edwin D. Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval
English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2005. See especially pp. 33–34.
Douay-Rheims Bible. Accessed 22 February 2019. http://drbo.org/.
Gellrich, Jesse M. “The Art of the Tongue: Illuminating
Speech and Writing in Later Medieval Manuscripts.” In Virtue & Vice: The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art,
93–119. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. See especially pp. 108–109.
Going to Kalamazoo this year? Ever wanted to learn more about the impact of digital tools and methods on medieval art research? Be sure to circle your programs for two exciting sessions on current topics in iconography, a roundtable and a workshop, co-organized by Maria Alessia Rossi and Jessica Savage of the Index of Medieval Art.
I. Saturday, May 11 at 10:30am [Session 346]
Encountering Medieval Iconography in the Twenty-First Century: Scholarship, Social Media, and Digital Methods (A Roundtable)
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 and access medieval iconography in the 21st century. Our five participants will speak on topics 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.
Digital Information and Interoperability: Facing New Challenges with Mandragore, the Iconographic Database of the BnF
Sabine Maffre, Bibliothèque nationale de France
Ontology and Iconography: Defining a New Thesaurus of the OMCI at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris
Isabelle Marchesin, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA)
Iconography at the Missouri Crossroads: Teaching the Art of the Middle Ages in Middle America
Anne Rudloff Stanton, Univ. of Missouri
Medieval Iconography in the Digital Space: Standardization and Delimitation
Konstantina Karterouli, Dumbarton Oaks
Online Resources in the Changing Paradigm of Medieval Studies
Marina Vicelja, Center for Iconographic Studies, Univ. of Rijeka
II. Sunday, May 12 at 8:30am [Session 505]
Lost in Iconography? Exploring the New Database of the Index of Medieval Art (A Workshop)
This workshop will demonstrate how
to get the most out of the new Index of Medieval Art database by using advanced
search options, filters, and browse tools to research iconographic subjects. A
short presentation will introduce the new subject taxonomy search tool that will
further facilitate exploration of the online collection.
We look forward to an invigorating discussion on current issues in iconographic research and to sharing an update on the new database. You can find out more about the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, held from 9-12 May 2019, including the full schedule here.
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.
54th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 9 to 12, 2019
Sponsored by the Index of Medieval Art, Princeton University
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?
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. 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.” 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.
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. 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. After about 850, they could also be seen as allegorical representations of Church and Synagogue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 Gertrude Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman (London: Lund Humphries, 1972), 2:94.
 This interpretation was promoted by St. Augustine (354–430 CE). Schiller, 109.