Zeuxis paints a panel for which five women pose

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

 

Part IV: The Body as Other

In the Christian Middle Ages (and indeed, sometimes today) the “Other” represented someone or something foreign to one’s acquaintance and experience, outside society’s beliefs, principles, or values. To the medieval mind, the “Other” greatly contrasted with “Us,” and was therefore recognized by negative qualities of appearance, behavior, or customs. “We” are good-looking, “They” are unattractive; “We” are refined, “They” are uncouth; “We” are virtuous, “They” are full of vices; “We” are kind, “They” are malicious; “We” are healthy, “They” are diseased. This idea is expressed in the period’s literature, particularly in treatises about travel to the East and other far-off lands, as well as in the art of the period—in sculpture on church portals, and in illustrations to manuscripts of various texts.

People supposed that foreign lands were populated by the Monstrous Races, barbarians who practiced pagan religions. Artists represented the “Other” by distorting human bodies or placing them in vulgar poses, dressing them in rags or filth, covering them with sores, adding animal features, or picturing them in unsavory situations and performing evil deeds.

In this section :
16) The Ramsey Psalter
17) King René's Book of Love
18)The Travels of Marco Polo


Click on thumbnail for larger image.

16) Ramsey Psalter

Click on thumbnail for larger imageProduced in England, Ramsay Abbey, ca. 1300–10
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.302; St. Paul im Lavantthal, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. 58/1 (cod. XXV/2,19), fols. 2v–3r

The Body as “Other”
Commissioned by the Ramsay Abbey cellarer, Walter of Grafham, this manuscript was intended as a gift for the abbot, John of Sawtry. It is prefaced by ten pages of full-page miniatures, and this double page spread is dedicated to the Passion, where Christ is judged, humiliated, and finally crucified. Note how his tormenters and abusers are characterized with special features: faces are distorted in malevolent sneers; their noses are bent, pugged or snout-like; bodies are hunched and twisted, and two men in the lower register at left have wings attached to their heads, a medieval sign of evil.

Facsimile: Der Ramsey-Psalter: Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe von Codex 58/1 der Stiftsbibliothek St. Paul im Lavanttal (fols. 2-5, 11-174) und Ms M.302 der Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (fols. 1-5=fols. 6-10 der Originalhandschrift), ed. Lucy Freeman Sandler, Codices selecti phototypice impressi, 103 (Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1999)
Gift of Saint Louis University Library Associates


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 2v, depicting Jesus teaching (left) and his arrest (right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 2v, depicting Jesus being scourged (left) and carrying his cross(right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 3r, depicting the death of Jesus (left) and his body being taken from the cross (right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 3r, depicting the burial of Jesus (left) and his resurrection (right).

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17) King René’s Book of Love (Le Cueur d’Amours Espris)

Click on thumbnail for larger imageProduced in France in the late 1460s, attributed to Barthélemy van Eyck
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 2597, fol. 9v

The Body as “Other”
This allegorical romance was written by René, King of Sicily and Duke of Anjou, in 1457. It represents the heart as a captive of love, who sets out to liberate Sweet Grace, held in captivity by Denial, Shame, and Fear.

In this elegantly illustrated copy the protagonists are represented by appropriate personifications: Heart is an armored knight, mounted on the horse Candor, whose trappings are decorated with winged hearts; Heart’s page Ardent Desire is handsomely arrayed in white court dress embroidered with flames. Here on folio 9v, emerging from a dark forest, they encounter Love’s enemy Jealousy, portrayed as a hideous, deformed female dwarf, with wild hair and grotesque features.

Facsimile: King René’s Book of Love (Le Cueur d’Amours Espris): The National Library, Vienna, intr. and comm. F. Unterkircher, trans. Sophie Wilkins (New York: George Braziller, 1975)


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 9v.

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18) The Travels of Marco Polo

Click on thumbnail for larger imageWritten and illuminated in Paris, ca. 1410–12
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 2810, fols. 29v, 194v, 195v

The Body as “Other”
The text of this manuscript gives an account of Marco Polo’s travels in the Orient between 1271 and 1298, including stops in Asia, Persia, China and Indonesia. It was a very popular book in the Middle Ages because of its descriptions of life, customs, and strange peoples in far-off lands. It was imagined that faraway places were inhabited by monstrous and humanoid races, like the Sciopod, a creature having only one leg with an over-sized foot that could be used as a sun umbrella; the Blemmyae, whose heads were located in their chests, and Hermaphrodites, whose bodies bore the sexual characteristics of both genders.

Book: Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo: With 25 Illustrations from a Fourteenth-century Manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (New York: The Orion Press, 1958)


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 194v, depicting a group of Blemmyae.

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 195v, depicting a group of Hermaphrodites.

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