Tuesday, August 08, 2023

St Francis of Assisi: Illuminations by Matthew Paris

I recently visited an exhibition at the National Gallery in London that focused on art relating to St Francis of Assisi. In the course of the next few weeks, some of my posts will show what was featured there. There were some excellent examples of traditional art, ranging from Italo-Byzantine to Gothic to Baroque, and just for comparison, as the dissonant chord that makes harmony all the more sweet, some truly awful modern images. The contemporary artists seemed more intent on undermining the Faith and trying to push it into a contemporary box of leftist or relativist dogma, rather than revealing Truth (more on those later in the series).

This week, however, something good!

There was a manuscript of a world history, the Chronica maiora of Matthew Paris, with illustrations of St Francis and a six-winged seraph, exquisite tainted pen drawings in the style of the 13th-century English school of St Albans, of which he was the pre-eminent exponent.

The above are in fact reproductions of illustrations drawn in the margin of the book, the originals of which are tiny!

There are two volumes of this history, which focuses, as one might expect, on Church history as a crucial aspect of world history (in contrast to the approach to history of many contemporary historians, who tend to write the prism of woke, neo-Marxist ideology).

The chronicle normally resides in the Parker Library and Corpus Christi College Cambridge. The library website contains the following description:
Matthew Paris OSB (c. 1200-59), a Benedictine monk of St Albans Abbey, was their official chronicler who wrote chronicles covering both world history and British history. These two volumes are of his most important work, the Chronica maiora, covering world history, but with a particular emphasis on that of Britain - vol I is CCCC MS 26 and vol II is CCCC MS 16, their production dating to the period c. 1240-55. Matthew was also a talented artist who was both scribe and illustrator of his own chronicles. These volumes have coloured marginal drawings, and also signs and heraldic shields in the borders signifying the persons and incidents in their lives, and also signifying their deaths, set beside the text passages mentioning these events. Recently, in 2003, the prefatory section to MS 16 (ff. i recto - v verso), containing lists and genealogies of kings, a diagram of the winds, itineraries, maps, and the picture of the elephant given by Louis IX to Henry III, has been bound separately as MS 16I. The part containing the chronicle text itself, ff. 1v-282r, has been rebound as MS 16II.

I wonder at the control that the 13th-century artist had when working on such a small scale. He must have had exceptional eyesight to work without the aid of optical devices and modern lighting systems. I speak as one who at 61 years old, would struggle to match it with something twice the size, even with the best reading spectacles, magnifying glasses and electric spot lamps!

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