Early Drawing and the Written Word

Drawing has always featured in medieval manuscript decoration, yet some of the most inspired and accomplished instances of early draftsmanship arose through its successful alliance with the written word. The 150 Psalms attributed to the biblical King David were a favorite text for illustration; its poetic imagery particularly inspired artists’ efforts with the pen.  Whether in the form of inventive initials, where scribe and draftsman were likely the same, or in the literal illustration of the psalm text, where the artist sought to depict—as literally as possible—individual phrases and verses, word and image are marvelously intertwined with one another.  It becomes almost impossible to speak of drawing and writing as discrete enterprises, as the drawing seems to arise from the writing and the words seem to arise from the pictures. Ink drawing, by its nature close to writing, further reinforces the intimate relationship between the text and image and between the acts of reading and seeing.

One of the earliest instances of literal illustration yielded one of the most influential works of medieval draftsman. The 166 ink drawings that adorn the Utrecht Psalter (see http://psalter.library.uu.nl/ for a digital facsimile), created in the 840s, are endowed with a palpable dynamism created by a restless line that seems to vibrate with excitement.  Almost immediately upon its completion, its notable style inspired a wide range of drawn manuscripts executed in the energetic, sketchy style it perfected.

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