Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tangental, between drafts

This tiny short story is what happens when one spends too much time looking at medieval illuminated manuscripts and reading scholarly exegesis of the same.


The Book of Night

There is a corner of the Cloisters Library, among the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby, where no light shines.


The Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St. Denis, devoted as they were to rooting out heresies, bought manuscripts produced by enemies of the Church in order to study what lies they contained and in order to keep them from the hands of the laity.

Unlike the beautiful gilded manuscripts produced by the Church, most were scrawled by mad ascetics in a crabbed hand with oak gall…except for one. One manuscript, written with minium, illuminated with lead, and smelling of salt and sulfur, was an early alchemical text of unknown authorship titled “The Book of Night.” The masons building the Abbey were greatly distressed when the monks bought this particular codex, for wherever the book was placed, shadow fell and light disappeared, making it impossible for construction to proceed.

The head of the masons’ guild tried to reason with the brothers of the order that this manuscript had no place in God’s house, to no avail. And so the masons took it upon themselves to entomb the book within a false wall and burn the plans that showed where it had been laid. The Benedictines were never again able to find the codex, and this act of rebelliousness sowed the seeds for later discord between Masonic guilds and the Church.


In 1938, the art historian Sumner McKnight Crosby began supervising the excavation of Saint-Denis. Plagued for years by insomnia, he was surprised to find he had less and less trouble sleeping as the work proceeded; and while he had difficulty retaining workers for the delicate work around the crypt, he himself felt oddly at peace, as if this was work he had been born to do.

The world was not at peace, however, and Crosby had to abandon his efforts in the face of the encroaching conflict—but not before he uncovered a hollow wall where light seemed to vanish into velvet blackness. Although he did not speak about what he found, Sumner McKnight Crosby never was troubled by insomnia again.

On those days where the weight of time and scholarship pressed him hard, Professor Crosby would tell his assistants that he wished not to be disturbed.

They’d see the lights dim through the milky glass on his office door, then darken to an inky black. Inside, Crosby would rest for a few endless minutes within a starless, dreamless corner of Night before hiding the instrument of his respite in an old linen sack and returning to the wakeful world.


To this day, if you were to search through the papers of Sumner McKnight Crosby at the Cloisters, you would not find all of Professor Crosby's work. There is one archival box too dark to be seen—the box containing “The Book of Night,” its lead illuminations casting an eternal midnight, waiting for another sleepless wanderer.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Here's the scoop, er, scope

After a lovely back-and-forthing through email, Rick MacArthur and I have a plan jelled. I have not been able to make contact with the prof who'd guide the "creative work" part of the project, so until I do, the scope may not include "for credit" art or other creative activity outside paper-writing.

That said, the outline of the work-to-unfold is below.


As I take on a project full of hateful imagery made part of beautiful objects, the question I keep coming back to is this:
How do I make something beautiful and useful, an akido-like transmutation of hate into love, from a work like this?

I use the word "beautiful" in the Navajo sense of hózhó, wholeness and balance.


Oddly enough, most of the books I need for this effort have been checked out of the University of Texas library, so someone else local is working on a similar project.

There has been a recent spate of scholarly publishing around the negative images of Jews in medieval illuminated manuscripts, so my poking at the metaphoric edge of these things will at least be grounded with some well-thought and well-vetted religious historians and art historians.


The roadmap, aka the outline for this work.

The Indispensable Other: Some Reflections on Images of Jews in Christian Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

1. Introduction.
1.1. Background on medieval illuminated manuscripts.
1.1.1. What does this form represent?
1.1.2. Who are its patrons? Audiences? Creators?
1.1.3. Was it a primarily secular or religious form?
1.1.4. Why look more deeply into a subset of the form—religious Christian medieval illuminated manuscripts?
1.2. Thesis statement.
1.2.1. Christian medieval illuminated manuscripts are full of carnival imagery with seemingly scatological, outside-the-sacred content. In this paper, I will briefly examine the role of carnival imagery—images of the Other—in medieval Christian art with a particular focus on marginalia and on images of Jews. I will reflect in more depth on the indispensability of the Other-as-Jew for medieval Christian culture as shown in images, and discuss the impact of images of Otherness for medieval peoples and for us.

2. Challenges.
2.1. Lack of preservation of sources.
2.2. Issues involving access to sources, both primary and secondary.
2.3. Seeing through medieval eyes, not modern eyes.

3. The variety of carnival imagery.
3.1. Types and counts (Counts are optional, assuming I can find access to
3.1.1. Hybrid monsters.
3.1.2. Animals and proverbs.
3.1.3. Sexual improprieties.
3.1.4. Mocking the clergy.
3.1.5. Mocking the nobility and others.
3.1.6. Emesis, defecation, and gold.
3.1.7. Depictions of other religions and cultures.
3.2. Iconographic content. What do scholars like Camille (and others) indicate these images meant to the people of the time?
3.3. Are these images found within or without the “core content” of the page? If without, what do scholars think that segregation represents?
3.4. Are images of Jews different from other types of marginal, carnival Others? If so, in what ways?

4. Jew and Christian—imagery of each as the ultimate Other.
4.1. A deeper look at images of Jews and Jewish culture within medieval Christian art.
4.1.1. Patriarchal Jews and contemporary Jews—“good Jews” and “bad Jews”?
4.1.2. Imagined Jews—anti-Semitic imagery in medieval England after the expulsion of the Jews.
4.1.3. Jews as source, Jews as target. (Jews and women as “source” discussed in Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare, 2004, by Lisa Lampert.)
4.2. A brief look at images of Christians and Christian culture within medieval Jewish art. (Optional, depending on source availability.)
4.2.1. Purim— triumph-over-the-persecutor imagery and narratives.

5. The indispensability of the Other, the impact of images of the Other.
5.1. Implications of the imagery for the medieval viewer—imagined Jews and imagined Christians, real consequences.
5.2. Implications of the imagery for the modern viewer.

6. Conclusion.
In brief…
6.1. Is the Other indispensable? If so, what may trigger people to turn from wariness to hate?
6.2. What role do images play in this transformation, and what responsibility do image-makers have?
6.3. Have contemporary interfaith efforts used the power of images? If not, is there something to be gained by emphasizing imagery?
6.4. Areas for further research.


Still waiting for time to get the artwork I made last semester back, and then off to a high-quality scanning service for hi-res images, and then off on a "tour de participants."

But that too shall pass.

Now, off to take another round of antibiotics for The Cussed Bicuspid, and to set to work on some reading.