On Carolingian book painters: The Ottoboni Gospels and its Transfiguration Master.

Author:Nees, Lawrence

Although Jan Steen is a famously funny painter, the only picture in the splendid exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., that caused me to laugh aloud was the self-portrait of 1670 (Fig. 1). (1) On first viewing it, I did not know the pointed reference to Frans van Mieris's pretentious self-portrait of two or three years earlier, (2) but I immediately recognized that the pose echoed a tradition of gentleman portraits such as Titian's gorgeous picture in London (sometimes said to represent Ariosto) or Nicolas Poussin's self-portrait of 1650. (3) The term "pose" is here a pun, mine and Steen's, intended to recognize a painter's claim to status as a humanist and a gentleman, a claim obviously contested and far from self-evident. These pictures can also represent a tradition of art historical scholarship in which the well-educated, self-assured, original artists of the Renaissance and later periods are contrasted with the occasionally skillful but conservative, and allegedly anony mous, craftsmen of the Middle Ages. From such a vantage point, artists of the early medieval period, even more likely to be seen as anonymous, are a fortiori dismissed as mere copyists whose individual contributions to the works of art they have bequeathed to us are absorbed in notions of "schools," regional or period styles, even ethnic categories. (4) The reductive tradition of emphasizing the otherness of early medieval artists needs at the very least reconsideration on the basis of the surviving evidence.

This historiographical schema inscribes prejudices, and wishes, as much as it describes the past. Recent works such as Evelyn Welch's book have called attention to the "medieval" conditions still controlling much of the artistic life of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy, practical issues of materials and artists' complex negotiation of the terms of their art and their livelihood with shifting patrons. (5) Contemporary northern Europe presents a similar picture of "medieval" practice, of masters closely associated with conservative guilds, practice from which an artist like Albrecht Durer sought to free himself, producing in 1498, after his return from Italy, a self-portrait posed very like Steen's and representing a "gentiluomo," to use the term that Durer deployed in a letter of a few years later. (6) What he was reacting against is exemplified by the well-known contract of March 15, 1464, between the four administrators of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sacrament at the church of St. Peter in Louvain wit h Master Dieric Bouts for an altarpiece pertaining to the Holy Sacrament. The contract specifies the subject matter in general and appoints two theologians who shall "prescribe" to Master Bouts, specifies the amount he will be paid, the time during which the work must be completed, and many other details. (7)

The case study presented here suggests that the ad hoc, contractual, artistic practices illustrated by the Bouts altarpiece were not restricted to the late medieval period but may in some instances apply at a far earlier date than hitherto generally supposed, specifically, in the Carolingian period. Even in dealing with early medieval book illumination we should recognize that such patronage-heavy artistic practice by no means eliminates the importance of the individual artist, any more than it does in the case of Bouts. The members of the Louvain brotherhood hired Master Bouts because they recognized and appreciated and wished to enlist his skills; had their membership included someone capable of achieving the same result, they would presumably have employed that member and saved (perhaps, if he offered a discount) a good deal of money. The contract specifies certain terms but not the special qualities Master Bouts was expected to provide, qualities for which he was employed and for which he would be paid. C arolingian patrons may have behaved in an analogous manner, using local or in-house talent for some jobs but seeking distinguished outside assistance when available, or for special purposes.

Durer's letter and portrait represent the gentlemanly social situation to which he aspired, not his normal social reality, which depended very much on his superlative craftsmanship. Master Steen's smile, part of the original conception of the picture but subsequently painted over, (8) recognizes that social status, originality, and craftsmanship are not separable, but bound together one with another. Of course, I do not maintain that in the early medieval period we can build art historical knowledge around individual artists as has been, since Vasari, a traditional, indeed at least until very recently, the dominant mode of procedure. Although I will suggest below that we can and should imagine careers for a few artists, we simply have not the requisite amount of information to do this frequently, much less systematically. (9) Yet this is in many ways a quantitative rather than a qualitative distinction. Who would be able to confidently identify the Madonna in Bruges, Moses in Rome, and Rondanini Pieta in Mila n as the work of the single sculptor Michelangelo if none were documented and we had no other works that could bridge the evident stylistic jumps between them? Yet even with a very fragmentary surviving sample of sixteenth-century Italian sculpture we would surely be able to identify great changes during the period, and we would wish to credit some highly talented individual (or individuals) for those changes. We would probably prefer to associate the Bruges Madonna with the artist of some apparently related statues in Rome and Florence, for example, the Vatican Pieta, even if we could not explain how such a statue came to be in Bruges, rather than hypothesize a lost "Bruges school" influenced by a lost Roman model.

The prevailing scholarly paradigm holds that during the early medieval period, at least in western Europe, art in general, and especially luxuriously painted books, was produced for and in monasteries, or occasionally in monasteries for courtly patrons, presumably by scribes and painters who were themselves monks employed in the monastic "scriptorium," (10) In his fine study Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, Jonathan Alexander begins the chapter on the early medieval period with the Benedictine rule's emphasis on obedience, at once implying that early medieval illuminators were normally Benedictine monks, and addressing their alleged lack of originality. (11) The latter issue is not a central issue here, (12) but the former assumption is very important, and at least debatable, if not dubious. That professed monks were the predominant early medieval book painters is an assumption little supported in general terms by evidence. (13) That an illustrated manuscript was produced for a monastery prove s nothing, for it could have been produced elsewhere. Even the relatively rare cases in which we can be confident that a manuscript was produced at a monastery, especially major Carolingian monasteries, prove nothing, for at least in the early medieval period monasteries commonly contained and employed those who were not monks. (14) As Mayke de Jong wrote of the early ninth century, "court and cloister served as interconnected locations of training, with trainees going from one place to the other without crossing any real boundaries." (15) As for professed monks, we cannot assume that they necessarily stayed in one location, for they could and did travel on important business of the monastery, and the production of illustrated manuscripts was manifestly important business in the Carolingian world. For the relatively small number of highly luxurious books painted in a relatively classicizing figure style--that is, precisely those manuscripts figuring most prominently in general treatments of early medieval art --it is in my view most likely incorrect to associate them with production in a stable monastic scriptorium. (16) We should be more prepared to consider their artists as specialists, in effect, professionals, whether of lay status, members of the secular clergy in lower orders such as priest or deacon, or even professed monks following a monastic rule.

The surviving corpus of early medieval book illuminations includes examples that may reasonably be castigated as amateurish, first efforts, sometimes even so acknowledged by their authors. (17) There are also some fairly amateurish, not to say ugly, artistic creations that survive from other periods, although for a variety of reasons they are less likely to be the subject of intense art historical study. The issue here is that, as in later periods and other contexts, some early medieval book painters were masters of great skill that clearly reflects lengthy training and more than intermittent engagement, that looks professional because it was. (18) Some of these artists produced paintings that were the most spectacular feature (saving an occasional ivory or bejeweled cover) in books presented as diplomatic presents of great value by or to kings, emperors, and popes; the prestige and value of such painting was evidently recognized in early medieval culture. Of course, there was at the time no concept of "geniu s" linked to artists by anyone, and I am not intending to delve into issues of individual self-consciousness, concerning which there is already an abundant literature. (19) What I am hoping to suggest is that some highly skilled Carolingian book painters were recognized and employed for their abilities, and that we need to consider these artists seriously in seeking to address issues linked to the production of books with splendid figural paintings. Indeed, we may need to shift the paradigm to one in which individual artists play a leading role, even while recognizing that the already difficult task of assigning dates and places of origin to the works of art they produced becomes even more challenging.


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