Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 31, 2017
Jeffrey F. Hamburger Script as Image Corpus of Illuminated Manuscripts 21. Leuven and Paris: Peeters, 2014. 77 pp.; 39 color ills. Cloth $32.00 (9789042930353)

For many years, Jeffrey Hamburger has been interested in the artwork of the manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and with Script as Image he has published a deeply engaging book, or rather a lengthy essay, on the “double page” in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. In it Hamburger approaches illuminated manuscripts from the apparent “classical” theme of the relationship between text and image. In certain ways, one could say that Hamburger’s Script as Image continues a line of thought developed several decades ago by Meyer Schapiro on the same subject, but here seen from all artistic media, including not only illuminated manuscripts but also other types of monumental art production. However, unlike Schapiro, Hamburger does not start by asking about the relationship between text and image in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages but by exploring the possibility of considering writing as an image. His approach focuses on a new exploration of the common nature of the written word and image in the visual culture of the Western Middle Ages.

In the introduction, Hamburger says that he will look carefully at the material link between text and image in medieval manuscripts via the nature of their formal relationship. At this point, the reader may feel a fear: that of a return to the formalism of a few decades ago and which, in my opinion, has been somewhat lost in medieval art history. But in reality, this is not the case. Voluntarily leaving aside the strict iconographic implications contained in the writing and the image in medieval manuscripts, Hamburger poses as the essential principle the “integration” of text and image in Western medieval culture. From there, he offers an innovative overview concerning key aspects of the “integrated” relationship between words and images in the production of medieval manuscripts.

Hamburger rightly recalls the importance in Christian theology of the theme of Creation at the heart of the discourse on the “Verbum” and its simultaneous written and visual dimensions. In fact, these considerations on the multiplicity of meanings of “Verbum” are central to the serious approach to the relationship between writing and image in the culture of the Western Middle Ages. Hamburger also relates the material dimension of the codex and its meaning to the theme of the body in the Christian culture of the Middle Ages. Hamburger reaffirms the idea that the manuscript is a body in both a material and ecclesiological sense in which the relationship between words and images plays a role of major importance. As a perfect example of this bodily dimension expressed through the manuscript and graphic features both written and visual, Hamburger recalls the importance of the Nomina Sacra and the possibility of not being able to read easily these sacred names from the often complex script implementation made by the scribes and the painters. On these issues, Hamburger writes beautifully, taking the well-known case of the initial letters located at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass in the sacramentaries and missals and in the exploration of the apotropaic formulas found in manuscripts such as the episcopal pontificals.

Another strong section of the book is dedicated to colors and lighting effects in the design of writing and images in medieval manuscripts, particularly liturgical manuscripts. Relying on the work of previous scholars, Hamburger offers a synthesis of the idea of color and light as the expression of the “Verbum” in the illustration of manuscripts. I found especially revealing his discussion of the illustration of the first words of the Book of Genesis and those commencing the Gospel of St. Matthew.

One of Hamburger’s most innovative analyses focuses on the complex relationship between the written and inscriptions on stones, i.e., epigraphy. In this regard, he demonstrates the very close links between writing in the manuscripts and the transcribed text on the stone supports. Obviously, the scribes who worked for both productions were sometimes the same or were familiar with the techniques of writing on stone and on parchment. In this direction, it seems clear that the formal aspect taken by some pages of illuminated manuscripts clearly evokes the epigraphic work on stone. In a number of cases, it appears that there was a real desire to “imitate” or even to act as if the decoration in the manuscript would have been made to include an epigraphic text taken from a stone. The examples selected by Hamburger in support of his argument are particularly clear and leave no doubt about the meaning of the approach that inspired the scribes and painters of medieval manuscripts.

Throughout Script as Image, Hamburger chooses informative and appropriate examples to illustrate his point. The quality of the book’s numerous reproductions is excellent. Finally, Hamburger’s huge bibliography within the 173 endnotes constitutes a valuable source of information. Although brief, Script as Image combines an excellent summary on the subject and simultaneously opens pathways to new research for the future.

Eric Palazzo
Professor, Art History Department, Université de Poitiers