Without a compliment or a mirror

As foray into visual art here, concurrent with my teaching of all periods of the history of art, yet congruous to my writing perhaps only in its diversity, I have chosen to re-create a copy of the historiated initial ‘R’ from the Cîteaux Moralia in Job, by Saint Gregory. In addition to a description of the work, I will introduce briefly several of the related personalities I have met along the way.

Illuminated manuscripts from the early twelfth century were written and decorated on vellum, prepared from the skin of young lambs, or parchment, made from coarse sheepskin. Vellum was expensive, and was reserved for luxurious manuscripts, like Moralia in Job; parchment, more common and affordable, was the usual medium for medieval writing. The writing and illumination were done with quills or reed pens using black and coloured inks. Herbal dyes were used to colour the inks. My choice of materials was determined for the most part by their availability. Vellum was not to be found, and I considered oil-based colours on gessoed heavy-weight paper to be closer to the original than water-colours on paper. The inks that were used on the original illumination would have been thickened; otherwise, they would have been absorbed into the vellum. Also, thicker inks could be scraped off the vellum if changes or corrections were necessary. My oils were thinned with linseed oil to achieve a consistency most closely resembling, I imagine, the inks that were used. Oils can also be scraped off of paper.

The size of the original manuscript is not known to me. It would have depended on the size of the available skins at the time, each one being folded to make a folio. My choice of size was arbitrary, but a book of such importance could not have been too small.

And who was Gregory, anyway? Gregory dominated the end of the sixth century as  Justinian had dominated its beginning; his effect on religion of the era exceeded only by that of Mohammed. Gregory was not a learned man, nor a profound theologian. Because of his profound simplicity, however, he influence upon people is immeasurable. In mind, he was the first completely medieval man. While he managed a scattered empire, his thought dwelt on the corruption of human nature, the temptations of ubiquitous devils, and the approaching end of the world. He preached with power that religion of terror which was to darken the minds of men for centuries; he accepted all the miracles of popular legend, all the magical efficacy of relics, images, and formulas; he lived in a realm haunted by angels, dæmons, sorcerers, and ghosts. All sense of a rational order in the universe had departed from him; it was a world in which science was impossible, and only the fearful faith remained. The next seven centuries would accept this theology; the most celebrated Scholastics would toil to give it the form of reason; it lingers in many forms even today.

But this same man, supercilious and credulous, physically shattered with a terrified piety, was in will and in action a Roman of the ancient cast, tenacious of purpose, stern of judgement, prudent and practical, in love with discipline and law. He gave a law to monasticism, as Benedict had given it rule; he built the temporal power of the papacy, freed it from imperial domination, and administered it with such wisdom and integrity that men would look to the papacy as a rock of refuge through tempestuous centuries. His grateful successors canonised him, and an admiring posterity called him, Gregory the Great. (One who is truly great reminds you of no one else.)

Gregory’s most serious venture into theology took the form of the Moralia in Job, a six-volume commentary on the Book of Job, from the Bible. He took the drama as literary history in every line; but also sought in every line an allegorical or symbolical significance. Perhaps the terror that Gregory wrote into his commentary on Job was in part due to his failing health. He became Pope in 590, and died in 604.

This brings us back to the early twelfth century, to Cîteaux, and to the Cistercians. In 1098, Robert of Molesmes built a new monastic house at a wild spot called Cîteaux, near Dijon, in France. The monks of Cîteaux were named the Cistercian monks. The third abbot of Cîteaux, Stephen Harding of Dorsetshire, England, re-organised and expanded the monastery, opened branches of it, and drew up the Charter of Love to ensure the peaceful cooperation of the Cistercian houses of Cîteaux. The Benedictine Rule was restored in full severity – absolute poverty was essential, all flesh food was to be avoided, learning was to be discouraged, verse-making was forbidden, and all splendour of religious vestment, vessel, and building was to be shunned. Sorry – No stained-glass windows permitted! Every physically able monk was to join in manual labour in gardens and workshops that would render the monastery independent of the outside world, and give no excuse for any monk to leave the grounds. The Cistercians outshone all other groups, monastic or secular, in agricultural energy and skill; they set up new centres of their order in unsettled regions, subdued marshes, jungles, and forests to cultivation; and played a leading rôle in colonising eastern Germany, and in repairing the damage wrought by William the Conqueror in northern England. In this magnificent labour of civilisation, the Cistercian monks were aided by lay brothers, vowed to celibacy, silence, and illiteracy, and working as farmers or servants in return for shelter, clothing, and food. If it were not for the charisma of Saint Bernard, inspiring recruits into a life of such austerity, the Cistercian order would have vanished while yet fledgling.

Saint Benedict had ruled that every Benedictine monastery should have a library. Cistercian houses, despite their aversion to learning, paradoxically, became sedulous collectors of books. (Forbid anything, and witness it thrive in defiance.) The authors of the books are known in most cases, but the copiers and the illuminators remain anonymous.

The twelfth century was a period of astonishing artistic accomplishment for the English schools of illumination. The influence of Canterbury reached as far south as Cîteaux. It is generally accepted that it was most probably English, this is, Saxon, artists who worked on the Bible of Stephen Harding, which was completed in 1109, and on a copy of the Cîteaux Moralia in Job of Saint Gregory, finished on the 24th of December, 1111. Stephen Harding, of noble birth, had professed as a monk at Shelborne, in Dorset, but he studied in Ireland⚨ and in France, made a pilgrimage to Rome, and on his return, stopped at Molesmes to take an active part in the foundation of Cîteaux. In 1108, he succeeded Saint Aubry as abbot, resigning in 1132. He died in 1134. His interest in establishing a correct text of the Bible was probably influenced by Saint Anselm of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, and it is reasonable to suppose that he introduced the Canterbury style of illumination and drawing to the monastery of his adoption – the large, historiated initial; the long, thin figure-style with the structure of the limbs articulated by a careful accentuation of the folds of garments.

The Cîteaux Moralia in Job, in its humour and vivacity, seems to me inconsistent with the rigours of the Cistercian order. Perhaps its artists were indeed borrowed from England to fulfil the task of its creation. For me, as an aspiring artist who copies first before arriving at a fashion all my own, the Cîteaux Moralia was a joy to reproduce. Those monks had style – brilliant, edifying, inspiring style – at least from the perspective of a painter.

Hold on to the old, and you will perish. A time of judgement is upon us. Just as the library is now obsolete, so is the church. Of course, we will continue to read, just as we will continue to believe, to worship, to pray; but through the books in our hands, in churches not made with hands. History lies. Why sanctify those lies in libraries? The church lies. Why consecrate those lies in churches built to separate women and men from direct, personal cultivation of relationships with the universal, the eternal, with nature and with the divine, however perceived?

(Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, born Maewyn Succat, was Welsh, actually, or Brythonic Cymric Celtic, born of wealthy parents benefitting from alliances with their Roman conquerors.

[Brythonic Cymric Celtic, or Welsh, Christians still honoured their matricentral origins, rendering their Christianity more gentle, more benign, than its Roman counterpart.]

Though Patrick’s father and grandfather were prominent in the faith, Patrick was not at first. Captured by Irish marauders who raided his family estate, he was enslaved in Ireland for six years, where he worked as a shepherd. Accompanying his escape was the vision that he would one day return to Ireland as a missionary. Before that, though, he would study with Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, in Gaul, now France, for fifteen years, culminating in his ordination as a priest.

When he did return to Ireland, his mission there lasted thirty years.)