Zeuxis paints a panel for which five women pose

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

 

Part V: The Body in Pieces

Since Antiquity, human societies have expressed in metaphors their concepts and beliefs about individual body parts. The head, for most peoples, constitutes the location of the individual’s vital force, directs the rest of the body, and is thus a site of power. The chest and heart are seen as locations of emotion and thought. In the Christian system the Church is seen as a body, with Christ as its head; in medieval political theory, the state represents the body with the king as its head: eyes, stomach, and arms refer to various levels of society, with workers represented by the lowest part of the body—the legs and feet.

Fragmentation of the body resonates in different ways. Decapitation, we could say, deprives the body of its power, and the decapitated head can be seen as a sign of defeat. At the butcher’s, however, animal heads and body parts on hooks remind us of our dependence on flesh for sustenance. The division of the Levite’s dead wife into twelve parts and their distribution among the tribes of Israel denoted a symbolic call for vengeance, while the heads and body parts of executed criminals displayed on city walls advised the public of the consequences of crime. Additionally, the Five Wounds of the Crucified Christ were adored by the pious, as icons of the suffering He endured for humankind; in the Roman Catholic tradition, devotion to the Sacred Heart celebrates Christ’s divine love.

In this section :
19) The Grimani Breviary
20)The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus
21)Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina
22) The Morgan Library Picture Bible
23) Prayer Book of Albert of Brandenburg


Click on thumbnail for larger image.

19) The Grimani Breviary

Click on thumbnail for larger imageProduced in Ghent and Bruges, ca. 1515-20
Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Cod. Lat. I, 99 (2138), fol. 288v

The Body in Pieces
The subject of this full-page miniature is the defeat of Goliath by the young David, who felled the giant with a stone from his sling, and then cut off his head with his own sword. Here David is portrayed as a conquering hero, leading Saul’s army into camp, bearing the severed head on the point of Goliath’s sword. Heads and other body parts from executed criminals were often displayed on city gates, as a warning to others of the punishment that awaited those who broke the law.

The Grimani Breviary, Reproduced from the Illuminated Manuscript belonging to the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1974)


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 288v.

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 288v, depicting the head of Goliath.

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20) The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus

Click on thumbnail for larger imageWritten and illuminated in Paris, around 1407
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 616, fols. 71v–72r

The Body in Pieces
Gaston Phébus, Count of Foix, wrote this hunting treatise between 1387 and 1389, recounting the benefits of hunting and the joyous life of a hunter. It describes the game animals in his part of France, explains the best ways to hunt them, and devotes special attention to the breeding and proper care of the hunting dogs.

This miniature depicts the hounds receiving their reward after a successful deer hunt: the severed head of the deer is shown to the lead dog, who bites and tugs at it and the venison is cut up and pieces laid in the blood collected on the deerskin, for the dogs to eat. Halfway through their meal the master will call the dogs and toss them the guts to fight over.

Facsimile: The Hunting Book of Gaston Phébus: Manuscript français 616, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale (London: Harvey Miller, 1998)


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 72r.

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21) Tacuinum Sanitatis in Medicina

Click on thumbnail for larger image Produced in northern Italy, perhaps Verona, end of the 14th century
Vienna, Österreichische Nathionalbibliothek, MS 1857, fols. 76v–77r

The Body in Pieces
Medieval health/herbal treatises were very popular among noble families in northern Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They contain information about beneficial and harmful properties of foods and plants, but also focus on the benefits of daily attention to one’s physical and mental health, pointing out the virtues of exercise, eating the proper foods, and getting regular sleep.

In this double page spread the heads of butchered animals are displayed on tables; other body parts are hung on hooks. The text discusses the physical qualities of animal heads and brains, and the correct way to eat them.

Facsimile: Tacuinum sanitatis in medicin : Codex Vindobonensis series nova 2644 der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 2004)


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 76v.

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 77r.

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22) The Morgan Library Picture Bible

Click on thumbnail for larger imageIlluminated in France, probably Paris, ca. 1244–1254
New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, MS M.638, fols. 16r–16v

The Body in Pieces
This Bible picture book consists of 43 vellum leaves with large miniatures containing three or four scenes, covering the period from the Creation to the story of David.
The scenes in this opening illustrate the story of the Levite and his wife (Judges 19:21–29; 20: 20–35), beginning at upper left, and ending in large lower scene on the right.

The Levite, traveling home with his wife, finds lodging with an old man and his daughter. At dinner, a group of townsmen appear and call for the Levite, wanting to abuse him. The host offers the Levite’s wife instead. The men take the Levite’s wife, rape and ill-treat her all night, and leave her lifeless before the door, where the Levite finds her in the morning. The Levite returns home with her body, cuts it up into twelve parts, and sends a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel, as witness of the heinous crime that had been committed. The final scene shows the slaughter of the Benjamites by the knights of Israel, in consequence of the misdeed.

Facsimile: Old Testament Miniatures: A Medieval Picture Book with 283 Paintings from the Creation to the Story of David (New York: Braziller, [1969])


Click on thumbnail for larger image.Image of fol. 16v.

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 15r, depicting the Levite and his wife at dinner (left) and the Benjaminite townspeople demanding the Levite be turned over to them (right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 15r, depicting the townspeople taking the Levite's wife (left) and the discovery of her body the next morning (right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 16v, depicting the Levite bringing his wife's body home (left), then cutting her into twelve pieces and sending the pieces to the twelve tribes of Israel (right).

 

Click on thumbnail for larger image.Detail of fol. 16v, depicting the Israelites slaughtering the Benjaminites in retaliation.

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23) 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, fols. 124v–125r

The Body in Pieces
This prayer book in German was commissioned in 1530 by Albert of Brandenburg, bishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the Halberstadt bishopric; the illumination was finished in 1534.

In the allegorical image at left the five wounds Christ suffered at his Crucifixion are presented as discrete, detached entities within a radiating field of light: the nail wounds are displayed on floating hands and feet, and the lance wound to the side is exemplified by a slash across the Sacred Heart. Equally suspended in space, groups of angels and a hierarchy of terrestrials adore the holy icons.

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. 124v.

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