Zeuxis paints a panel for which five women pose

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



"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!"

— Hamlet, Act II, Scene II.

Welcome to the website for “What a Piece of Work is a Man” – Reading the Body in Medieval Manuscripts. This is an online version of the exhibition displayed in the foyer of Pius XII Memorial Library at Saint Louis University, October 1–November 30, 2008, curated by Dr. Susan L'Engle. The exhibit was set up to accompany the Thirty-Fifth Annual Saint Louis Conference on Manuscript Studies (October 17–18, 2008), sponsored by the Vatican Film Library and held at Saint Louis University.

The images on view in this website were scanned from manuscript facsimiles in the collections of the Vatican Film Library at Saint Louis University. These facsimiles are faithful reproductions of the original manuscripts and represent a valuable tool for scholars of medieval manuscript studies, art history, church history, and many other disciplines.


This exhibition explores ways in which medieval artists used body language in their pictures to tell a story, establish a mood, comment on society, or invite viewer participation. It draws on representations found on the pages of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, and seeks to identify social issues addressed by particular compositions or modes of depiction. Whether situated in miniatures or and initials that illustrate textual themes, or staked out in the margins as parallel or transgressive commentary, bodies — human or otherwise — are utilized in a variety of poses and postures that reflect changing attitudes towards the body itself.

Depictions of the body may differ in how much is covered or exposed, and in how its physical structure is expressed. Society required the concealment of certain body areas, and partial or total exposure of these sensitive zones in a picture would have diverse connotations and resonances — not only reflecting current aesthetic conventions, but also revealing how the viewer was expected to react to the image. The images on display present pictorial definitions of gender, class, etiquette, occupation, religion, metaphor, and humor.

Enter the Exhibition

2007 Manuscripta conference poster

The poster for the 2008 Manuscripta Conference can be downloaded as a PDF file. (8.3MB)