Zeuxis paints a panel for which five women pose

"What a Piece of Work is a Man"
Reading the Body in Medieval Manuscripts


Part III: Holy Bodies

In religious manuscripts holy figures such as martyrs and saints are often portrayed partially or entirely unclothed, especially in scenes that describe their trials or martyrdoms. The holiest body of all, that of Christ, may appear entirely nude in depictions of various events in his life: at the Nativity, while being washed; at the Adoration of the Magi, to whom his genitals are sometimes displayed to prove his manhood; or at his Baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. In representations of stages of the Passion, however, such as the Flagellation and the Crucifixion, Christ most often is clad in a loincloth. The effect of exposing the body of a holy figure is to emphasize its humanity and thus bring it closer to the viewer's experience.

Holy figures are represented in ways that invite love, empathy, or respect. The Martyr saints are often accompanied by the instruments of their martyrdom: Saint Lawrence by the grill on which he was roasted; Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the wheel on which she was bound. These objects stimulate the viewer to imagine the saints’ suffering and honor them for their courage. During the Passion, Christ’s tightly-bound wrists and the crown of thorns that pierce his head emphasize the physicality of his suffering, and inspire an emotional response from the pious.

In this section :
14) The Gospel of Trebizond
15a) The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry
15b)Prayer Book of Albert of Brandenburg

Click on thumbnail for larger image.

14) The Gospel of Trebizond

Click on thumbnail for larger imageProduced in Trebizond (today in northeastern Turkey), second half of the 10th century
St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, MS gr. 21, 21a, fols. 10v–11r

Holy Bodies
Written in Greek liturgical uncial, this Gospel book has sixteen miniatures representing scenes described by the Evangelists. The poses of the holy figures reflect the Byzantine iconographical tradition. On the left is the composition known as Christ and the Two Marys. Christ stands frontally with blessing hand as the two women before him bow in proskynesis—a gesture of prostrating oneself, either in subservience, or in glorification of the person to whom the act is addressed. Originally a Persian court ritual, it was adapted by the Greeks. On the right, Christ sends the Apostles on their Mission to preach the Faith. Since they are closer in rank to Christ the Apostles bow less acutely, but their hands are covered in respect for the Holy Presence.

Facsimile: Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe des Codex Gr. 21, Gr. 21a, Lektionar von St. Petersburg, aus dem Besitz der Russischen Nationalbibliothek in St. Petersburg (Graz: Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, 1994)

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 10v, depicting Christ and the Two Marys.


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 11r, depicting Christ with the Apostles.

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15a) The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry

Click on thumbnail for larger imageProduced in France, probably Paris, 1406–1408 or 9, illuminated by the Limbourg brothers
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, Acc. No. 54.1.1, fols. 160v–161r

Holy Bodies
Saints and martyrs are often recognizable by attributes (objects associated with their lives) or by events that characterize their martyrdom. At left, Saint Peter is identified by his large key he holds, symbolizing the key to heaven; Saint Paul’s attributes are the sword he was killed with and a closed book representing the epistles he wrote. Saint Bartholomew is thought to have been martyred by flaying, a process graphically illustrated on the right. In some paintings he is depicted as completely flayed and holding up his own skin.

Facsimile: The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry: The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, comm. Millard Meiss and Elizabeth H. Beatson (New York: George Braziller, 1974)

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 160v, depicting Saints Peter and Paul.


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 161r, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew.

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15b) Prayer Book of Albert of Brandenburg

Click on thumbnail for larger imageWritten and illuminated in Nuremburg, Germany, 1534
Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Cod. a.U.6.7, fol. 76r

Holy Bodies
Written in German, this prayer book was commissioned in 1530 by Albert of Brandenburg, bishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the Halberstadt bishopric; the illumination was finished in 1534. Along the fourteenth century an image was developed for the pious that minimized the visual field and focused on one figure, generally Christ or the Virgin. These devotional pictures stimulated viewer participation in and emotional response to the figure and its life and suffering. In this miniature Christ is represented, after the Crucifixion, in a pose called Christ as Man of Sorrows. He displays his five bloody wounds and his tearful eyes are fixed on the viewer, inviting him to suffer too. The full facsimile of this manuscript is found in Case 5, open to an allegorical representation of the Five Wounds of Christ.

Facsimile: Libro de Oración de Alberto de Brandemburgo (Barcelona: M. Moleiro Editor, 1991)
Gift of Saint Louis University Library Associates

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 160v.

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