Interweaving Methodologies: New Approaches to Visual Literacy in Medieval Manuscript Reception

in Learning to See: The Meanings, Modes and Methods of Visual Literacy
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It is a vast shame that, despite an increasing demand for interdisciplinary study, there is still a somewhat stringent attitude towards any study that affiliates itself equally among disciplines rather than claiming to predominantly represent one alone. In medieval studies it is particularly difficult to examine manuscripts exclusively, or even primarily, from either a literary or art historical perspective, when the objects in question quite often encompass both. In fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts image and text shared an intertwining relationship, and I propose to examine this relationship by focusing on the manuscript as a narrative object in its entirety. In the Très Riches Heures, designed and partially completed by the Limbourg brothers before 1416, lavish imagery encompasses the narrative world of the brothers’ patron, Jean de Berry. Literary themes exist on a variety of planes in this instance, from the inclusion of narrative references such as the Iliad or Berry’s personal folk tale Mélusine, to the narrative created around Berry’s own world and the creation of folio space that was deliberately intended to expand the reader’s imagination beyond the usual narrative confines of the image frames. In a similar vein, the artist of René’s Livre de Coeur illustrates the text in a manner that not only accompanies the narrative, but also incorporates its own form of literary criticism and interpretation, and in England the Ellesmere Manuscript, perhaps the most famous early edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, uses its imagery to signal new innovations in literary mobility and the personal reception of the book. A conjoined approach between literary and art historical studies, then, can shed a vital light on the study of medieval manuscript reception, and enable a better understanding of medieval approaches towards visual literacy.

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