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Drawings in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

Drawings in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

Lecture by Sally Dormer

Given at the Museum of London, on May 16, 2012

Overview: Medieval drawings are frequently viewed as the poor cousins of fully-painted miniatures. But in England, an appreciation of drawing persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Based within the late 10th and early 11th centuries, this lecture proves that drawing was more than an expedient alternative to full paint.

Extract: Amongst the illustrated manuscripts produced between the early 10th and the mid 11th century in England, in the main scriptoria and lesser centres of manuscript production alike, an evident fondness for drawn illustrations, co-existed with an interest in fully painted work. This begs a question. How does one define drawing? The Oxford English Reference Dictionary offers a variety of definitions, “the art of representing by line”, “delineation without colour or with a single colour” and “the art of representing with pencils, pens, crayons etc.” I want to broaden this interpretation, to define drawing as an approach to illustration dominated by line, rather than colour; where highlights are supplied by the page surface, in a manuscript, the parchment, rather than the application of white or pale-toned pigment. This detail of a Last Judgement, an angel locking the door to the mouth of Hell, in a book known paradoxically as the Liber Vitae (Book of Life), made at Winchester c. 1031 to commemorate the faithful, departed members of the monastic communities there, demonstrates this definition.

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts contain drawings of different types. First there are quickly executed sketches or doodles, such as the figures, some of them incomplete, and fragments of knot-work patterns, on this otherwise blank sheet of parchment at the back of a volume of miscellaneous texts, produced in the mid 10th century. The artist is trying out ideas; such drawings are experiments, never intended as finished compositions. Then there are unfinished drawings, which may well, although it is sometimes difficult to tell, have been under-drawings, destined to be obscured by the application of pigments and gilding. This may have been the case for this author portrait of Aldhelm (d. 709), Abbot of Malmesbury and later Bishop of Sherborne, penning De virginitate (In Praise of Virginity) for the nuns at Barking Abbey, Essex. A faint red chalk sketch is visible, partly redrawn in ink. Lastly, and from our point of view today, most importantly, there were finished drawings, illustrations meant to remain as drawings. Sometimes, as here in the full page frontispiece to the Canticles, Litany and Collects that come after the Psalms in the early 11th-century Eadui Psalter, drawing was combined with fully painted and gilded work within a single miniature. The seated figure of St Benedict on the left, and the artist-scribe, Eadui Basan (Eadui the Fat), a monk at Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, crouched beneath, embracing his right foot, are painted in rich pigments, enhanced with substantial areas of gilding; the monks who approach bearing gifts (to be considered further later), are drawn in brown ink and touched frugally with tints of colour. It is drawings from this latter category, finished drawings, which were produced in all the major monastic centres of Anglo-Saxon manuscript production, which will concern us today.

Click here to download the transcript and slides from Gresham College

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