Sunday, May 31, 2009

Join the Discussion

Welcome to the Pen and Parchment blog. The exhibition will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum through August 23, 2009. From now until then, some of us who worked on the exhibition will be writing weekly posts about selected works of art featured in the exhibition, discussing themes that we find interesting, and responding to your comments and questions. (See About This Blog for more information about submitting comments.)

Drawings appear with surprising frequency in the Middle Ages, and were considered fitting for the embellishment of important and lavish books as well as for humbler tomes. The drawings are accomplished with a broad array of inventive techniques, as artists explored the possibilities of line, often playing it off painted and gilded elements on the page. Some of these works may puzzle the modern viewer because their subject matter, conventions of representation, and overall aesthetic may be unfamiliar. The works may in fact call into question our own expectations of what a drawing should look like and how it should function. With these issues in mind, we welcome your questions, comments, and general thoughts about the works discussed.

???Melanie Holcomb, Associate Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Comments (36)

  1. Kathy Araujo Says:

    I love that technology is making these incredible and beautiful works available to everyone. thanks for providing this resource - I have bookmarked it!

  2. Laura Jereski Says:

    The NY Times review (congratulations, by the way) makes reference to the rediscovery of Opicinus in the 1920s–can you say some more about that? Was it the drawings that were refound, or the name of the artist, or something other?
    many thanks for any additional light you can shed,


    Is there any source of a medieval drawings of childbirth. At the British Museum there is a hieroglyphic of cleopatra giving birth. The first books on midwifery @1500 show some drawing ,Regards JHC

  4. Martin Rosenthal Says:

    I read a (very favorable) review of this exhibit in the WSJ; thanks for having it all online, I thoroughly ejoyed it without travelling to New York.

    I notice in the “Paschal Lamb, Rabbi Gamliel teaching…” that the faint text on the right hand page is mirror image.
    Did the photograph pick up the text from the other side of the page (isn’t the parchment to thick)? or… how is it explained?

    Phoenix, AZ

  5. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Laura,

    Thanks so much. Your question raises an interesting point about Opicinus???s portfolio of drawings. Though replete with autobiographical details, the drawings in fact never give his name. It wasn???t until the 1920s that a cleric from Pavia, with an interest in local history, made the connection that the Opicinus de Canistris who had authored a pro-papal polemical tract was the same man who had written an anonymous description of Pavia and created the set of drawings. If you’ve seen the exhibition, you know that set includes a drawing of the cathedral of Pavia, which was Opicinus’s hometown. It is on view along with two other drawings from the portfolio.

  6. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Jason,

    I can offer two suggestions for published works on medieval images of childbirth:

    1) Elizabeth L’Estrange, “Anna Peperit Mariam, Elizabeth Johannem, Maria Christum: Images of Childbirth in Late-Medieval Manuscripts??? in Manuscripts in Transition: Recycling Manuscripts, Texts and Images, eds. B. Dekeyzer and J. Van der Stock (Paris, Leuven, and Dudley, MA, 2005), pp. 335-346.

    2) Carole Rawcliffe, Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England (Stroud, Gloucestershire, 1995)

    There are a few databases that I know of where you can look:

    One is of medieval medical imagery in North American collections: . There don???t seem to be any images in that database specifically of childbirth but you can search under other terms such as gynecology, pregnancy, etc. and find some interesting images.

    Another is produced by the Wellcome Library in London:

    Perhaps, others have suggestions?

  7. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Martin,

    The script you???re seeing is in fact the text on the reverse side of the page bleeding through. You might have a look at the image of the Bury St. Edmunds Psalter, also in the exhibition, where you can observe the same phenomenon. I think that we often assume that parchment is thick because it is made from animal skin. Medieval parchmenters (the medieval craftsmen skilled in making parchment), however, developed processes to stretch and plane the hide to an extraordinary thinness. The thickness of the parchment was also heavily dependent on the type of animal from which it was made. Calf skin, for instance, is known to produce the thin and high quality parchment. It is not only the thinness of the parchment that allows the text to bleed through, but also the type of inks that were applied to it. Some inks bleed more because of their chemical makeup. Sometimes the bleeding becomes more prominent with time because certain unstable inks, such as iron gall, can actually eat their way into the parchment membrane. We???ll be talking more about materials in future blog posts, if you???re interested.

    For those interested in the Wall Street Journal review Martin mentions, here is the link:

  8. Austin Chinn Says:

    I have a thought in re to seeing “ghost” writing in drawings. It really does have a great deal to do with the chemistry of the ink. Often later drawings that we read as having been drawn in brown ink were actually drawn in black ink. The ink has turned over brown over time. The iron based inks are not always stable.
    The ink can eat through paper over time and become visible on the verso on the drawing. I imagine the same could be true of drawing on parchment.

  9. Austin Chinn Says:

    I have posted a specific comment to the Blog but I also posted a general comment which seems to have been lost is space. I will try again.

    I spent a wonderful hour in the Pen and Parchment exhibit on Friday afternoon. It was not my first visit. P&P, while it may at first glance appear to be an esoteric exhibit for the specialist, it is not. It is not an exhibitit for the Medieval specialist or the drawings enthusiast alone. It can and should be seen and enjoyed by the general museum visitor. The exhibit consists of entire books, not just sheets from manuscripts. The books represent the rare opportunity to see and study the complete document and illuminate the idea of learning and knowledge in the written and illustrated word in the Middle Ages. The idea of knowledge and learning in the Middle Ages literally jumps off the page for the viewer. For the lover of drawings (I am one of this group) P&P is an exhibit which rewrites the idea of what a drawing was and is and can be. For those of us who have thought of drawing as an art form that blossoms in the Renaissance in Italy, the earth has moved. P&P establishes a taste and ability to draw that far predates the Renaissance. The examples in the exhibit are as close as we are to get to the idea of drawing in our western Classical past. We know it existed and was used andd appreciated but no examples survive. For that alone and for me, Pen and Parchment is a wonder, a show of originality and important new scholarship. This is what the MMA does so well. It is a show not to be missed. Congratulations to Ms. Holcomb and her collaborators!

  10. Martin Rosenthal Says:

    Thanks Melanie for you answer.
    I’m what Austin Chinn calls a casual museum goer. I have no artictic skills and no art education, I’m just a big enjoyer/appreciator.

    psYou certainly don’t have to post this one.

  11. Julianna Lees Says:

    What a wonderful exhibition and what a splendid web site. As we live in Aquitaine we have to manage on virtual visits, but we thank you for making these so rich and exciting. I love the image of St Jerome, grandly dressed in a robe decorated with cintamani - presumably to show that it is made of silk - and receiving divine inspiration for his writing from a little bird whispering in his ear. It looks like a short-necked swan, but perhaps it is not meant to be any kind of bird in particular?

  12. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Julianna Lees,

    Regarding Jerome’s bird, I’ve always assumed that bird to be the dove of the holy spirit providing him with divine inspiration, similar to images we have Saint Gregory.

  13. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Austin,

    My thanks for your kind comments. It’s always gratifying for curators when visitors respond enthusiastically to the fruits of our many years of labor. As someone who is passionate about medieval art, I hope that the exhibition opens more people’s eyes to the great achievement and creativity of medieval artists.

  14. Irina Dumitrescu Says:

    Dear Dr. Holcomb,

    I’m delighted to know that non-specialists can appreciate this marvelous exhibition. I have to tell you, however, that for an Anglo-Saxonist, the exhibit was mind-blowing. I hardly expected to see such important volumes when I came into the Met. The contents exhibition should be more widely publicized, which some medievalists are trying to do. (See, for example: )

    I did want to ask if there will be any chance for scholars to read any of the manuscripts while they’re on this side of the ocean. Do the agreements with lending libraries allow for it?

    Again, many thanks — I’ll be coming back a few times this summer.

  15. Barbara Grossman Says:

    As an artist I found this an extraordinary show. The power and precision of feeling in those drawings can be compared to the highest order of painting in any era. What I am curious about is that little is discussed about the calligraphy. As a student I was ‘forced’ to study lettering and came across this style, which I believe is Carolinian? I find that the writing has as much sensitivity as the drawing and am curious if the letter was also the drawer?
    Thank you for assembling this stunning show.

  16. Ivan Bercedo Says:

    Dyson Perrins Apocalypse pages display two saints watching the scene through a hole in the image frame. From a modern viewpoint I find their position extremely interesting and I would like to know who they are and whether this kind of representation was habitual or actually very rare. Although I can’t visit the exhibition (I write from Barcelona), I am very enthusiastic about the materials in the website. Congratulations.

  17. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Irina,

    Thanks so much for spreading the word about “Pen and Parchment.” Every time I give a tour of the show, I remind my audience what a rare opportunity it is to see most of these works, which are seldom if ever on public view. So I want as many people to know about the exhibition as possible.

    You asked about the opportunity for scholars to study the works outside of the cases while the books are at the Met. I’m afraid our loan agreements strictly prohibit that.

  18. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Barbara,

    Thanks so much for your kind remarks. It thrills me that medieval art speaks to contemporary artists. Yes, you’re absolutely right to notice the script, which in many, many cases is rendered with the same kind of care and sensitivity as the drawings. And the exhibition displays a whole range of script styles including the Caroline minuscule that you studied as a student. As to your question about whether the writer and draftsmen were the same, in most cases they are not. There are some exceptions though, and I’ll talk about that more in a future post.

  19. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Ivan,

    You have seized upon one of my favorite details of this work. The saint that you see peeking in from outside the frame is John, whose revelation is recorded in the Apocalypse. John appears regularly throughout this lavishly illustrated copy of the Apocalypse as a witness to his vision. Each page is a little different, and it’s fascinating to track his various reactions to what he sees. The Getty Museum website allows you to examine all the illustrations in the this book:

    There are some other examples of Apocalypse manuscripts that feature John as witness. The Morgan Apocalypse is one, for example. It differs though from the Dyson-Perrins Apocalypse in that John is always inside the frame, which sets up a different sort of relationship between the visionary and the vision. You can examine the illustrations in that book on the Morgan library website:

  20. Warren Josephy Says:

    To locate and then to bring them all together is a minor miracle. It is an eye opener to see, and wonder ast the level of work done in that remote time. I have a book, The Year 1000, and after seeeing the show, checked the book agaiin. Sure enough the frontpiece and chapter headings are all taken from what we see at the museum. What a treat to see them all the original! It is a choice opportunity- go and see for yourself.

  21. Anne Bobroff-Hajal Says:

    I was very excited to hear Melanie Holcomb’s interview today on WNYC, and to discover that Edward Tufte will be speaking at Pen and Parchment. I’m an artist currently working on the hazy boundary between fine art and “information visualization.” Pen and Parchment???s online images are wonderful sources of ideas for me. An example is ???Mystical Diagram of the Ascent of the Soul???s??? integration of image and text, and placement of art within the cross. This is exactly the kind of food I need for my visual imagination as I plan placement of text and images in my next triptych. (I???ve so far been using as inspiration very complex icons I saw on a trip to Damascus, and others in Tania Velmans et al???s book on icons). I???m eager to see the original Sponsa et Sponsus, Dayyeinu Text and Hybrid Creatures, the Tickhill Psalter Full-Page Initial, and others.

    Having just written some blog posts about my work, I’d been reading Meyer Schapiro’s Words, Script, and Pictures, which I was reminded of while listening to the WNYC interview. I’m also particularly interested in Edward Tufte’s concept of “confections” (described in “Visual Confections: Juxtapositions from the Ocean of the Streams of Story,” in his book Visual Explanations). I???m looking forward to the opportunity to hearing him speak.

  22. m j meade Says:

    I’m wondering about the written comment concerning the Model Book of Initials, Tuscany, 1175 (#33 in the exhibit). I’m not sure why it follows that because it exists (and none other such book is in our hands, one that is, that predates this one) it “speaks to the rise of professional artist…”

    Could it not just be a piece of luck that it exists?

    Perhaps others did exist and they were used in some way which precluded our inheriting them (who knows? Maybe they were used for another purpose and so did not last the centuries).

    And what do we mean exactly by professional artist?

    Please explain.

  23. Bernard Langs Says:

    I visited this exhibit last week and was completely captivated by it. Everything about it was well thought out. The selection of works were exquisite and stimulating and arranged beautifully in the galleries. I’ve been coming to the Met consistently for about 28 years and one can always count on the Medieval/Renaissance Depts. to shine. I thought I’d seen all styles of works from this period (between visits to the Met and the Morgan Library) and was happily surprised to find that this was not so. Melanie Holcomb is to be congratulated for this aesthetic and educational experience in “top shelf” art.

  24. Joseph Cotter Says:

    I was puzzled by the Arenberg Gospels “Liber generationis IHV XRI. Its the first time I recall seeing the genitive of the ubiquitous IHS, here with the bar above the V marking the contraction of IHSOU; but it’s the XPI that puzzles me; could he have meant a Latin genitive and so maybe even “Jesu Christi” or is the XPI an abbreviation of only the three first letters and the writer meant the proper Greek “IHSOU XPISTOU”? Does the omega like mark over the “I” indicate an abbreviation of this sort? I’m curious as to whether the scribe used the Greek for liturgical and aesthetic reasons without actually knowing his Greek declensions.

  25. Barbara Grossman Says:

    Congratulations to Melanie Holcomb!
    Read the review of this show by Jed Perl in the July 29th issue of The New Republic,
    “The Pen is Mightier; Celebrating the Most Original American Museum Show in Years”

    And thank you for taking the time to respond to all the comments..this has been fascinating. I await your further comments about the draughtsman and the calligrapher.

  26. Betsy Williams Says:

    It has been a pleasure to read so many great comments and questions from visitors to the site and to the exhibition — we have found them challenging, enlightening, and always interesting!
    For those who would like to read the article you mention, I include the link here:

  27. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Joseph Cotter,

    You are absolutely right to note that the scribe responsible for the text of the Gospel of Matthew in the Arenberg Gospels has written the words “Jesus Christ” as a Greek abbreviation, as was the norm in the Middle Ages. I admit I don???t know Greek well at all. I have always assumed that scribes are using the Latin declension even when writing the Greek, but I thought it a good idea to consult a scholar of Byzantine art, Dr. Warren Woodfin, who is a fellow at the Met this summer. He confirmed that though the letters are Greek, the word is written using the Latin (not Greek) genitive. This comes out the Christian tradition of the “nomina sacra” (sacred names), whereby certain names are abbreviated to their first two letters in Greek but then use the final letter to indicate the Latin inflection. The marks over the letters, as you rightly note, tell us that some letters are missing. I think it???s safe to say this scribe did not know Greek but is simply using the traditional means for referring to Jesus Christ in the Gospel text.

  28. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Thanks so much, Bernard Langs. Comments such as yours, Barbara Grossman’s, and others on this blog are gratifying to those of us who worked so hard on this exhibition.

  29. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear M. J. Meade,

    Perhaps my wording was too strong in the label text that accompanies the the Tuscan Book of Initials. I didn’t mean to suggest that this book’s existence alone suggests the rise of the professional artist. It is one piece of evidence among many from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries that tell us of a newly emerging class of skilled artists, lay specialists who are paid to illuminate manuscripts. This is a contrast to the monastic artists, who often were also scribes, that we associate with early Medieval manuscript illumination.

  30. Deborah Feller Says:

    The figures in the drawings from the 900s AD remind me of those on ancient Greek pottery that the Met has in its own collection–in particular, the drapery and the graceful way the folds and hems are rendered. Also, these early drawings depict less idealized faces than later ones and therefore hold more interest for me. In the 1100s and 1200s, the work becomes more generalized, almost formulaic, certainly very stylized.

  31. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Deborah Feller,

    Though I understand why many appreciate the elegance of later medieval works, I admit I too am drawn to the earlier drawings. They seem more spontaneous to me, a little livelier. The Anglo-Saxon works in particular are filled with humor and humanity.

  32. alicia moore Says:

    How long will your MARVELOUS “Pen and Parchment” website-within-a-website remain posted? It’s a treasure itself! Thanks for such a super-terrific job!
    A.Moore (on the last day!)

  33. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Alicia Moore,

    Thank you for your kind remarks about the website. We’ve been so pleased by the response. We will be accepting comments and questions for another month. After that, it will remain up indefinitely, though with some changes. Some lenders, for instance, have only granted us permission to use photos of their images for a short duration.

  34. David Howlett Says:

    Thanks for putting on this wonderful show.

    The Tickhill Psalter was very interesting. Can you elaborate on the process it shows?

  35. Betsy Williams Says:

    Dear David Howlett,
    The Tickhill Psalter shows the process of illuminating a manuscript. The earliest pages show completed illuminations — all paint and gold have been applied. Gradually, as one pages through the book, the decoration begins to disappear. Little by little, the finishing touches are no longer as refined; paints slowly fade from brilliant shades to more rudimentary blocks of color; finished under-drawings are then reduced to slight sketches. In this way the Psalter reveals the stages of making a manuscript. You can see more of this process here:
    Thanks again for this comment.

  36. LT Says:

    When I visited Pen and Parchment, I was happily surprised to come across the business cards that announced this blog. I don’t think I’ve ever come across them before in a museum show. I’m glad to discover your blog. It’s an enriching way to revisit the show.

    Best, LT

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