Illuminated Manuscripts and the Spanish Early Medieval Period

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On this "Illuminated Manuscripts" page:

- a brief description of the period of invasions

- Moorish Muslims and the development of Mozarab art

- the highest achievement of Mozarab art:  illumination (10th century)

- Romanesque illumination (11th century)

The Romans and the Visigoths:  Here Come the Conquerors

The expanding Roman Empire took two centuries to fully conquer the peninsula, but it then held it for 600 years, gradually Romanizing the Celts and Iberians.  Christianity came to Hispania in 1 AD and gradually spread.

From the Beatus if Liébana manuscript.

The illumination represents the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar II, of Babylon, who had an enormous statue of himself made in gold, and required all to bow down and worship it at a dedication ceremony.

Three young men of Judah, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refused to worship the idol.

A very messy period of invasion began in 409, sounding the death knell of Roman supremacy; the various invader kingdoms in Hispania came to be reunited as one Visigothic rule.  What interests us principally, however, is that much of what the Romans had still survived in a simpler form, such as its economy, laws…and Christianity.

The Moorish Muslims and Memorable Manuscripts

Moorish Muslims invading from northern Africa had almost completely conquered Iberia by the 8th century, and steadily converted to Islam; indeed by the 10th century most of the ethnic Iberians had become Muslim.  This was a period of tension and strife between the different ethnicities and peoples.

However, Cordoba, the capital city, was a great centre of cultural exchange and trade, for the Muslims brought a great intellectual tradition with them.  As scholars revived Greek learning, Romanized Iberia exchanged and interacted with Jewish and Muslim culture; Christianity began to lose ground in a serious way.

From the Beatus of Liébana manuscript.

Here the story continues.  The furious Nebuchadnezzar (right) sentenced them to be burned alive in a fiery furnace heated to seven times its normal heat.

The three young men of Judah told the king that their God would protect them.  Yet the furnace was so hot that the soldiers who threw bound and threw them in died themselves from the heat.

The Christians under Islamic rule, called Mozarabs, developed their own art.  It rose up in the end of the eighth century and reached its fullest expression in the ninth and tenth, especially in architecture, characterized by the horseshoe arch and the cruciform floor plan. 

But architecture aside, the Mozarabs had another remarkable achievement:  illuminated manuscripts.  Indeed, these are considered one of the greatest achievements of all of Spanish art.

Mozarab characteristics such as the horseshoe arches from architecture are present, but it is also possible to find Eastern and even Nordic influences.  The 10th century Sevillian (or Hispalensis) Bible, drawn with goosefeather pens, is among such illuminated manuscripts. 

From the Beatus of Liébana manuscript.

The king was astounded to see that in the furnace the three young men not only did not perish, but even their garments remained unharmed by the flames as they walked about unbound.  He also saw a fourth man in the furnace with whom they talked.

He called the three to come out, and acknowledged the power of their god; he understood that the fourth being was divine, and decreed that henceforth that any nation saying anything against the god of the Jews was declaring war.

Tradition says the fourth man was the Archangel Michael; it also sometimes says he was the Christ.

Another important work with strong, beautiful imagery is the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana (786 AD) that inspired other miniaturists at work on their own illuminated manuscripts, until well into the 13th century.  The most celebrated copy was illustrated by an illuminator called Maius, who worked in the monastery of San Miguel de Escalada; it was finished in 926 and now belongs to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Maius had a style of his own, despite being clearly inspired by Byzantine miniatures: the figures are represented and clearly recognizable as real, yet as decoratif motifs, set off by his having used color in an interesting way.  Interestingly, there is another copy of the Beatus manuscript with illustrations signed by a woman artist, "Ende pintrix" (meaning "Ende, woman painter") or "Ende pintrix et dei aiutrix" (Ende, woman painter and servant of God").

11th Century Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts

Spanish Romanesque illumination was, in its small way, just as monumental and noble as the monumental paintings of the time, meaning the 11th century.  The drawings were dynamic and very expressive, and managed to not have that, well, "courtly" look that the French Romanesque did.  Decorative devices such as arabesques or parallel lines in different tones also defined shape.

One of the most important manuscripts of the period is the Beatus of the Cathedral of the Cathedral of Burgo de Osma of 1086, illuminated by the miniaturist Martinus.  Equally important were the Book of Testaments of the early 12th century, and the prayer book of Ferdinand I and Dona Sancha of 1055, from the hand of Fructuoso; another important illuminated manuscripts include the Bible of Huesca.

It can be supposed that Spanish artists were responsible for these illuminations, but as craftsmen of the time were also rovers, it may well be that artists from the other side of the Pyrenees also participated.

A page from the Osma Beatus

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