Nees speaks on Carolingian illustrations

The field of art history, to many outside it, probably doesn’t seem like one with a great many unanswered questions. In some ways, this seems even more true of Medieval art. After all, Medieval art has existed unchanged for over a millennium; surely a consensus has been reached as to its interpretation by now?

On the contrary, art history is awash in debate, and Medieval art history no less so. Yesterday, Professor Lawrence Nees of the University of Delaware gave this year’s Mary Albertson Medieval Studies lecture on his work exploring one of these emerging debates.

Professor Nees spoke on the practices surrounding the copying and creating of images for late antique manuscripts in the Carolingian Age. More specifically, he argued that, contrary to a widely held opinion which held that Carolingian scribes were attempting to copy faithfully late antique works in their entirety, when it came to creating images for these texts they were more likely to use their sources as models, creating a visual idiom that was uniquely Carolingian.

The starting point for this investigation is the fact that all classical texts that have survived exist as copies produced during the Middle Ages, and not in their original form. Nees’s lecture focused on texts copied in the Late Antique period (the 4th-6th centuries AD), and related texts copied in the Carolingian period (the 8th and 9th centuries, named after Charlemagne). As Nees pointed out, scholars are generally willing to accept that the copied text is faithful to the (now-lost) source. But what about the accompanying pictures?

The prevailing opinion, recorded in HW Janson’s seminal art history textbook is that Carolingian manuscript illuminations are “the visual counterpart of copying the text of a work of literature.” That is, that the goal of Carolingian scribes was to make an exact copy not only of the text of their source, but also of the illustrations.

Professor Nees, however, argued that we cannot assume that this is true for all texts. For, while we cannot decisively prove anything without the original texts, we can look at books available to Carolingian scribes and see that their work was being influenced, not by classical texts, but by recent books held in their libraries.

A series of image comparisons illustrated his argument well. Some pairings, such as two portraits of evangelists, were intended to debunk the idea that medieval bookmaking was all about copying: although the two images are often given as examples of an illustration and its copy, they were not really alike. With other pairings, Nees challenged the assumption that Carolingian manuscripts copied Roman ones by pointing out details that wouldn’t have made sense to a Roman, but were more likely reflections of Carolingian ideology painted in a classical style.

The most highly developed comparisons, however, were between Carolingian texts and the earlier books that we know resided in their library in Tours. In these earlier texts, we can see specific details that were incorporated– but not copied– into Carolingian texts. One copy of the Aeneid even shows evidence of having been transferred: the same figures appear, recontextualized, in a story of St. Paul. By tracing details from 8th and 9th century manuscripts to their probable source in an actual book that scribes could have read, Nees established a plausible connection between Carolingian illustrations and late antique models.

Having established a plausible direct connection between Carolingian manuscripts and the texts they were probably using as their inspiration for illustrations, Nees reemphasized that in no case were the scribes simply copying a preexisting illustration wholesale into their books. Rather, they were adapting motifs and interpreting them to fit their texts.

This reinterpretation of the source of Carolingian illustration points to a more general rethinking of the purpose of Medieval Studies as a discipline. Seeing the clear differences between some of the images displayed, it was hard to see why historians would ever have claimed they were just copies, and not original work.

However, as Nees explained, many early medieval historians legitimized their work on the “Dark Ages” by claiming that medieval scribes had saved civilization by preserving classical works. It is only recently that the Middle Ages have been acknowledge and studied as a civilization in their own right. In that light, Nees and others should be seen as using art to completely change how we understand the history of the Middle Ages.


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