List of Figures

February 19, 2012

All Good Things

Exhibit A:
This is a very interesting historiated initial from a very interesting manuscript. Illustrating a small text about a comet, it comes from one of the earliest encyclopaedias in the modern sense of the word. Organized alphabetically, Omne Bonum (literally, All Good Things) was composed and written circa 1360s-1370s by James le Palmer, clerk of the Exchequer, probably for Edward III. A team of illuminators, almost certainly instructed by the author, added hundreds miniatures, making this book one of the best windows into the fourteenth-century mind we have.
Having stayed in the Royal Collection for some four and a half centuries, it was eventually donated, along with thousands of other books, to the British Museum by George IV in 1823. Now in a special section of the British Library (a section almost impossible to get access to), it is also available online: MS Royal 6 E VI, MS Royal 6 E VII (it’s actually in four volumes now, but they kept the old nomenclature).
I enjoyed browsing it immensely. Here’s a selection of some of the more curious images:
Teeth: dentist at work Age: сhildren playing with toys and catching butterflies Jews (expelled from England in 1290) Adolescence (note the convex mirror) Brain: trepanation Colour: artist mixing pigments
I found this gem thanks to the BBC’s Illuminations: The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.
You can see a couple of excerpts from it on my new blog: 1, 2.

Exhibit B:
Now, this miniature is a good example of how you shouldn’t believe your intuition when interpreting old images. At least one texbook and one generally reliable photo bank tell us that this is a very early depiction of multiple waterspouts bursting from a cloud lit by lightning, from a 13th century manuscript De natura rerum by Albertus Magnus. A few places on the web repeat this very believable claim, and so, at first, did I.
But then I found the manuscript itself and a dissertation about it. The text of the manuscript and other illustrations in it are unambiguous: this is supposed to be a solar eclipse. You’d never think you could mix up those two, would you?
The circular spinning top, half-hidden behind the clouds, is in fact the Sun (compare it to the vista of the night sky from the same chapter, and to a roughly contemporary parallel — both shown below). And those wavy things are either light rays or some kind of emanating matter\energy (the very next page has a star or a comet with a similar tail, and an earlier example shows God moving primeval substances in a similar manner — ibid).
They got the author wrong, too, by the way. The text was actually written by Albert’s friend and student Thomas of Cantimpré. Full reference, for posterity:
Thomas of Cantimpré, “De natura rerum”, Valenciennes Municipal Library MS 320, folio 196v, miniature of a solar eclipse.
P.S. I would like to thank Christopher Chatfield and Chet Van Duzer for helping me to get to the bottom of this.

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