Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. mus. I 2 65, fol. 236v (detail2) copy

Medieval Selfies

Self-portraits of medieval book artisans are as exciting as they are rare. In the age before the modern camera there were limited means to show others what you looked like. In the very late medieval period, when the Renaissance spirit was already felt in the air, some painters made self-portraits or included themselves in paintings commissioned by others. Stunningly, the medieval painter Jan van Eyck showed himself in the portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his fiance: he is staring at you from the mirror that is hanging behind the couple. For those who still didn’t get it, he painted above it Johannes de eyck fuit hic, Jan van Eyck was here” (Fig. 1, more here). He added the date 1434 to the picture, making it a particularly early selfie.

Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and his fiance, 1434 (right) and mirror detail (left)
Fig. 1 – Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and fiance (right)  and mirror detail (left)

As far as producers of books is concerned, there were only two kinds of artisans who handled a tool with which a selfie could potentially be produced, if the individual was so inclined. Scribes could doodle themselves using ink and pen; and decorators could do the same with brush and paint. In practice, however, we almost exclusively encounter self-portraits made by decorators, perhaps because scribes lacked the skills and equipment to produce something meaningful. Even so, decorators rarely put themselves in the picture. The exceptions to this rule are real treats, as this post aims to show: they provide sneak peeks into the workshops of medieval artists.

Monastic decorators
When a decorator is seen on the page, we must assume that a conscious choice was made to become part of the book’s decoration program. This is particularly evident when the decorator added his or her name and designation (“decorator”). This is precisely what the nun Guda did: she depicted herself inside an initial letter D with a banderole (title banner) that reads “Guda, sinner, copied and decorated this book” (Fig. 2). It seems out of sync with the modest life style of nuns to identify oneself with name and title. Pride was a vice so there must have been another reason behind Guda’s self-identification. Perhaps she did so with a sense of history: she is raising her right hand as if to greet future readers.

Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek Ms. barth. 42
Fig. 2 – Frankfurt, Staatsbibliothek, MS Barth. 42 (late 12th century)

In spite of this very expressive scene, Guda’s selfie does not give away too much about the medieval artist’s workshop. In fact, if it wasn’t for the words on the banner, we would not have guessed that she was a decorator. Where are the paraphernalia of the trade? Fortunately, there is another example that provides more detail about the working environment of monastic artists (Fig. 3). This image was produced by Rufillus, monk in Weissenau Abbey in Ravensburg, Germany, near the end of the 12th century. In the selfie we catch Rufillus putting the finishing touches on a giant letter R. He wrote his name above his tool: there is no avoiding that we get to know him. Remarkably, in another manuscript we encounter Rufillus again. This time he depicts himself as the scribe of the book – he scribbled, oh vanity, his name above himself (Fig. 4).

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 127, fol. 244r (late 12th century)
Fig. 3 – Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, MS 127, fol. 244r (late 12th century) – source
Amiens, BM, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v (late 12th century)
Fig. 4 – Amiens, BM, Lescalopier 30, fol. 29v (late 12th century) – source

Rufillus the decorator places himself in a rich setting: in Fig. 3 we see him surrounded by pots of pigment and various instruments. He provides us, in other words, with a much wanted glimpse into his monastic workshop. Moreover, like the nun Guda, Rufillus was apparently active as a decorator and a scribe, which is another important detail that can be derived from the selfie. What is most striking in light of this post, however, is the similarity of the two portraits: in both, Rufillus shows himself as having bright red hair, big eyes and pronounced wrinkles on his cheeks. The similarity strongly suggests that this is what our decorator really looked like, which is a fascinating thought.

Commercial decorators
Such detail-rich selfies are also encountered in books that were made commercially. A particularly telling self-portrait was made in 1512 by the German book decorator Nicolaus Bertschy (Fig. 5, more information here). In this portrait, which is included in the Lorcher Graduale, he shows himself in the company of his wife, who appears to be drinking from a large mug with her arm around his neck. It is not the scenario you would expect, this rather down to earth setting where drinks and female distraction replace both decorum and concentration.

Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. mus. I 2 65, fol. 236v (detail)
Fig. 5 – Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. mus. I 2 65, fol. 236v (detail)

Nicolaus introduces himself in a note beneath the image: in spite of the scene, he clearly saw no need to hide his identity. Next to him we see the scribe Leonhard Wagner (note the “LW” on the white shield), who is said to have known a hundred different kinds of handwriting (more here). The illustration shows the two artisans producing the very choirbook in which it appears, making this a selfie with a fascinating double layer.

Remarkably, a manuscript from fourteenth-century Paris also presents a selfie of a decorator and his wife (Fig. 6). It shows Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston, who worked in the second quarter of the century. In this great image Richard appears to copy the text while Jeanne is busy decorating the pages. Given this division of labour it was likely Jeanne who produced this selfie. There are many more details that prove insightful for artists’ workshops. Parchment sheets that were finished are hanging to dry on clothes lines, for example.

Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350)
Fig. 6 – Paris, BnF, fr. 25526, fol. 77v (1325-1350) – source

Interestingly, in a commercial setting such selfies can be regarded a kind of advertisement, especially when a name was added. It identified, after all, who had produced the decoration – as if to say, “If you like this, you know who to contact!” It is somewhat perplexing, however, that patrons allowed artists to add put such spam in their newly purchased books – especially when showing a decorator and his wife drinking on the job.

The last word
And what about selfies of scribes? Here things are less clear. Occasionally we encounter a plain pen drawing of an individual copying. However, they are (to my knowledge) never accompanied by name and designation (“scriptor”), meaning we cannot know for sure if the scribe meant to show himself or simply drew a generic “scribe”. The drawing in Fig. 7 is an example of such unclarity: it may be a selfie, or it may not be.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 104, fol. 52v (dated 1427)
Fig. 7 – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 104, fol. 52v (dated 1427) – source

Studies have shown that the writing figure is a clerk, a copyist affiliated to an institution where documents were made. As it turns out, this particular manuscript containing the text Piers Plowman was produced by a clerk. This is evident, among other things, from the way in which the dated colophon in the back of the manuscript was worded. Moreover, the marginal notation above the clerk’s head, which appears to be in the same hand as the main text, writes over the top of the drawing. This suggests it was  the scribe himself who drew it. A writing clerk drawing a writing clerk: is it enough to call this image a selfie? It’s a great conundrum that shows the limits of taking the modern notion of “selfie” to an age when cameras didn’t exist.

95 thoughts on “Medieval Selfies”

  1. I always enjoy your posts. This one is interesting as usual and I love the high quality illustrations. The scribal portrait I am most familiar with is the Scribe Eadwine in the Eadwine Psalter, Trinity College, Dublin Ms. R.17.1. As a full page illumination, this image is quite different from your examples. Do you know of any “self-portraits” that are so large?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Fascinating article! Poor Nikolaus Bertschi in that 1512 “selfie” shown above: apparently his wife, Margarete, well-fueled with ample quantities of drink, will not leave the poor man alone to do his work!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The problem with scribal portraits is that most are made by decorators: even though they portrait scribe X, they were made by decorator Y. So these (and Eadwine) are different: they are portraits, but likely no self-portraits – selfies. I know of very few scribal self-portraits; all are small.

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  4. i’ve been enjoying reading your blogs, and watching some videos here. i particularly like the selfies above, i teach teenagers who are forever taking selfies on their cellphones. i also loved reading about the garbage book, and have made a few such things myself.

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  5. Great article. I studied the impact of language and manuscripts…incl art on historical influence but this is a lovely insight to a whole other angle based on a contemporary mirroring. Thumbs up!🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Question: In your blog, I notice that you do not use gloves when handling the manuscripts. Is this a common practice? We taught that in the handling of any older document, gloves were a necessity. I have really enjoyed the blog entries.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I just wanted to say thanks for your blog. I’m teaching English to a medieval historian and have shared some posts with him as they are well-written and interesting. They are very accessible, packed full of lexis, and have provoked some interesting discussion; so “ačiū”, which is Lithuanian for “thanks”!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I loved this! It’s fascinating to see how much more detail people put into their self portraits then now. They took such care into drawing their surroundings as great representations of themselves. I particularly liked figure 3 I think the detail is astonishing.

    Like

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