Image Interrupted – The Unfinished Medieval Manuscript

By Julie Somers

Recently, I received as a gift a pretty amazing coloring book full of images of medieval tapestries. Beautifully drawn copies of medieval masterpieces, yet empty and free to the possibility of re-creating them in my own fashion, or faithfully following the ‘exemplar’. This made me think of the relationship between the scribe, rubricator and/or illuminator. Which can be complicated, because in different settings, they could be the same person.

Medieval Tapestries -Coloring Book

Medieval Tapestries -Coloring Book

In past posts we have discussed the medieval doodle, typically a rough drawing placed in the empty margins of a manuscript. Yet, what about those drawings that were intended, but left unfinished?  Did the artist know what was desired and where to place the image? Sometimes, like looking at the coloring book, it is best to start with an unfinished piece to see the steps needed to complete it.

When the medieval scribe set about creating a manuscript, much like the modern publisher, layout was of key importance. The scribe had to decide many factors, including the placement of images. Often, when a manuscript was ‘under construction’ notes were left behind indicating what initials the rubricator should add and where.

Commonly called ‘guide letters’, they acted as instructions to the next step in line of production. Look closely, it is very small!

Guide Letter 'C' BL Royal MS 12 C IVc. 1200

Guide Letter ‘C’
BL Royal MS 12 C IV
c. 1200

Another example, a mid twelfth-century manuscript from Germany, now at the Walters Museum has many initials left in varying stages of production.

Walters Ms. W. 12 f. 4v12th c.

Walters Ms. W. 12 f. 4v
12th c.

In fact, sometimes more detailed instructions were left for the illuminator. An early example of this practice can be seen in the Quedlinburg Itala from the 5th century.  Some of the paint has worn away revealing the instructions beneath; “Make the tomb [by which] Saul and his servant stand and two men, jumping over pits, speak to him and [announce that the asses have been found].”

Quedlinburg Itala 5th c.(Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Cod. theol. lat. fol. 485)

Quedlinburg Itala 5th c.(Berlin, Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Cod. theol. lat. fol. 485)

In addition to initials, miniatures are often found unfinished. In an example from ‘The Abingdon Apocalypse’ (1270-1275) we can see the area that was ruled for the miniature, with a pencil sketch in place.

BL Additional MS 425551270-1275

BL Additional MS 42555

Perhaps the most well known example of unfinished miniatures is the Winchester Bible (1160-1175). Many of the images represent the progressive stages of production. Some are  sketches while others seem to be just waiting for color.

Winchester Bible, Cathedral Library Ms 17.Photo by John Crook

Winchester Bible, Cathedral Library Ms 17.
Photo by John Crook

From these few examples it is easy to see that a great way to learn about the production of a medieval image in a manuscript is to look at those that were left unfinished. In this web video presentation from the Fitzwilliam museum, you can follow along in the process of creating illuminated manuscripts.

With a focus on the material aspects of the medieval manuscript, we might ask; what can we learn about the creation of images from those left unfinished? In fact, we can learn quite a lot. It may be even more interesting to consider those images that were planned but did not make it to final completion.

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