Drawing and the Learned Tradition

In the Middle Ages, monasteries served a vital role in the teaching and preservation of knowledge. Their libraries often housed a range of learned texts—patristic (relating to the Church fathers) and exegetical (explanatory) writings, histories, encyclopedias, cosmologies, and works of natural science—that may well have been copied and illustrated in the monastic scriptorium, a room dedicated to this purpose.

Monasteries that prided themselves on being centers of learning—such as those in Saint Gall, Switzerland, the one in Prüfening, Germany, or Thorney, England—also nurtured the graphic arts in their scriptorium. For several practical reasons, drawing served as the technique of choice for diagrams and scientific illustration. Drawings interacted seamlessly with the written text, and because they usually relied on immediately recognizable symbols, they could convey a great deal of information efficiently. The relative austerity and legible format of the medieval drawings associated with scholarly books fit in with their didactic mission. Often striking and sometimes beautiful, the diagrams, charts, and illustrations accompanying scientific, theological, and historical works testify to the depth, complexity, and range of medieval learned pursuits.

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