The Saint John’s Bible

Coventry Cathedral

It recently came to my attention that the first handwritten Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in more than 500 Years was completed: The Saint John’s Bible, named after the abbey that commissioned it. As a medievalist and a Christian, I find this wonderfully exciting. Having had the privilege of working with medieval illuminated manuscripts, I believe that illuminated texts, especially the Bible, are precious works of art.

The Saint John’s Bible is digitized, and you can leaf through its pages online. I love it. I love the modern, abstract illustrations, the artist’s interpretation of marginal glosses, the cover page for each book. The illustrations somewhat remind me of Coventry Cathedral. The medieval cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by an air raid during WWII, and after the war, a new cathedral was rebuilt beside the ruins. The new cathedral keeps the design and structure of a cathedral, but the art is all modern. It certainly takes a visitor by surprise, but by the end of my visit, I came to like it. Together, the old cathedral and new serve as a testimony to the endurance of faith and of the community.

The style of art works even better on the page. In The Saint John’s Bible, we have again a medieval work of art reinterpreted into our (post)modern context. Click on the image of Genesis above and go explore the Bible. Someday I hope to be able to own a reprint of one of the volumes, possibly Psalms.

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Things Medieval

One of the goals for this holiday in London is to see things I haven’t before. I thought this meant I would finally get around to visiting the Tate Modern, but instead I found myself walking up the steps to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A could take me an entire week, if we take into account that I spent three hours in the medieval galleries alone. What can I say? I am a medievalist.

I love all things medieval. Literature, music, architecture, clothing, art. My favourite medieval art is personal devotional art pieces: folding altar pieces, diptychs and triptychs, whatever. I love the amount of detail and care and, yes, devotion is put into each relief carving of an ivory triptych. This no doubt is influenced by the triptych in the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art, which I researched and curated when I worked there. Triptychs, diptychs, and folding shrines are worship aids for personal devotional use; they are made to be portable, the sides folding over the main part of the shine to protect the fragile carvings. The V&A had an absolutely beautiful fourteenth century French ivory folding shrine. There is evidence that it was once gilded and painted red, remnants peeking through in cracks and corners. Each side panel depicts a different episode from the Bible or a saint’s life (depending on the piece).

I knew I already loved carved ivory and stained glass, but my new favourite thing is medieval enameling. Enamel combines my love for small, portable religious pieces with the vibrant colours of stained glass, and the enamel altar pieces in the V&A simply took my breath away. Just look. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?


A fourteenth century English triptych depicting the life of St Edward.
Enamel on gold.


Master of the Louis XII triptych. Early sixteenth century, portraying King Louis XII on the left panel, kneeling in front of his patron St Louis, and Queen Anne of Bohemia on the right panel. The center panel shows the Annunciation.

And with a stroke of serendipity, I came across two beautiful cups: one, the Luck of Edenhall, a goblet believed to be have been left behind by the fairies, and the other the Meróde Cup, the plaque of which mentioning Jean, duc de Berry, none other than the patron of my beloved Melusine. The Luck of Edenhall goblet is actually an example of medieval Syrian glasswork, remarkably in pristine condition. It was probably back to England from pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It eventually became the talisman of the Musgrave family of Edenhall in Cumbria. Legend says that when the fairies left it behind, they cried, ‘If this cup should break or fall / Farewell the luck of Edenhall!’ What is particularly fascinating to me is that this goblet reinforces the connection between Fairy and the East in medieval literature.

The Meróde Cup did not belong to Jean duc de Berry, but there are descriptions of similar cups as having existed in his collection, and of his brother’s, King Charles V of France. The main body of the cup is gilded silver. The Meróde Cup is the only medieval example of plique-à-jour enamel. Stunning.

I had another moment of medieval delight this morning in the British Library. I had ordered, and the librarian handed over to me, the manuscript of Jean d’Arras’s Melusine. It was enormous. It is amazing. If cameras had been allowed into the reading room I would have taken a picture to post here. I had no real purpose in mind when I requested to see it, since I have already finished my chapter on Melusine, but, well, I wanted to see it. I spent the day leafing through it, taking notes as whatever I saw caught my fancy (fodder for an article or conference paper), and reading my favourite passages from the romance.

And, it seems as though London knew I would be in town this summer. The British Museum is having a special exhibition on none other than ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. I’ve already booked my ticket to see it.

Twice upon a time

Tonight Rebecca and I went to see Dundee Rep’s production of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Way. Way’s version of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty really is my favourite — the original script is set in medieval Wales, and is as much a story about Prince Owain as it is about Briar Rose. A perfect princess cursed by an evil witch, a useless prince who dances his way past fairies, out-riddles the Spider King, and fights the witch herself, there is humour and seriousness and a faithfulness to the spirit of Fairy that I really love.

Some of you will know that I was the dramaturg for OBU’s production of Sleeping Beauty a few years ago. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons throughout the play. I liked how Dundee Rep altered the script slightly to reflect Scottish folklore instead of Welsh: instead of the witch sisters being Modron and Branwen, they were Haliach* and Brigid. The fairies, instead of the Welsh Tylwyth Teg, were the Sidhe (and were quite the opposite of the fair Twlwyth Teg, for the Sidhe were very creepy!). The costuming for Briar Rose was done similarly to how OBU did it: each time when the audience sees her she is older, having added a piece of clothing, resulting in a blooming rose. OBU did this with green and red, and Dundee Rep did this with yellow and gold. I quite like the effect of both. The music for Dundee Rep was also very nice, with harp and song, and the dancing fun to watch.

But of course, of course, I am biased. I prefer OBU’s production: the set and costumes more beautiful, the sword choreography better planned, and the Spider King scariest of all. Just look:

Susan (Smoots) Heminger and Nathan Hollis as Modron and Prince Owain.

But that in no way means I did not enjoy Dundee Rep’s production. It was lovely to see a play and a story I know so well done in an interesting and different way. Sleeping Beauty was the spark that led to me writing The Faerie King, and The Knight of the Rose after. I am very pleased indeed to have had the chance to see the play again. And it shows how one can still find something new each time one sees a play: I hadn’t noticed before that Owain was his father’s seventh son, which explains why he could also see Gryff, when no one else but Briar Rose could. Seventh children have the Second Sight, meaning they can see fairy creatures and the like. Just like Princess Agnes. The only problem is, of course, that now I want to write the third…

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* Alas, I know this name but cannot spell it.

A bit of theatre

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!

-Henry IV, Part I, I.i.86-89
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So yesterday, Chris and I hopped over to London for the day. We had lunch with Timothy, a former-SCIO housemate who now lives in London, and then headed over to The Globe to see Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. Ever since I toured The Globe during is construction when I was 12, I’ve wanted to see a play performed in it, and getting to see two plays in one day was just brilliant. For the first play we were groundlings in the yard and in the second we sat in the gallery. The rain stayed away, it wasn’t too hot, the acting was amazing, the audience responsive — in short, it was a great experience (even with the annoying teenage girls braiding their hair during the performance!). I loved how we were recreating an atmosphere and an experience that we could share with people 400 years ago, how the jokes were still funny, the grief still poignant. There are some things about human nature that just haven’t changed over the centuries. Except, I don’t think that the people back then had to worry about overhead aeroplanes drowning out the voices of the actors.

Even though it was a really long day, I kind of wish they had gone the whole way and started in the morning, so that they could do both parts of Henry IV *and* show Henry V in the evening. I know, I ask too much.

Chris and I also saw four of the actors at Wagamama’s during dinner in between the plays. We were perhaps a little too giggly about this.

We didn’t get back to Oxford until 1.30 AM, so I slept in and have had a lazy day hanging out with the Hardins and their friends, and enjoying a quiet Sunday evening. It’s nice to be able to relax and have no demands for a little while.

On a side note, I used the ‘I Write Like’ analyzer and found out that on my blog I write like Neil Gaiman. Pardon me while I am not-so-secretly pleased with myself.

Musings, etc.

I took allergy medicine this morning instead of the standard sinus fare, and have been more coherent because of it. Note to self: buy local honey. Though, I’m long past the two-week grace period of moving to a new continent — and, er, Oxford 2006 probably ruined my chances of that working, too. Still, honey.

Artists can sell their work to whomever wants to buy it. Musicians can play for symphonies, bands, on street corners. But what of writers? In my limited understanding as to how the other fields of art work, it seems that writers alone face the wall of external judges to get their work even acknowledged. Someone else decides whether our work is good enough to publish and make known to the public eye. Whereas a group of musicians may band together, play a few gigs, and go where the likely fans are, a writer may spend the same span of years waiting for an agent, an editor, a publisher, to risk spending money on a single story. The narrow door is not a bad thing, because not everything that is written should be published, but I wonder how many good writers are turned down in favor of something less good, but which the publisher thinks might sell. We live in a market economy. When a writer simply wishes the world to know her work, to read and enjoy it, I can see how self-publishing can be appealing. Self-publishing and e-publishing both carry stigmas, however. It saddens me that other servants of the muses may be able to scrape a living off of their creativity and writers are left to find alternative work just to live.

Yes, I have been reading The Dispossessed. The philosophy behind Anarres appeals to me greatly, but as Shevek has found, even utopia is no place for the artistic, solitary soul.

T.S. Eliot needs to finish writing Chapter 2 of her novel so that Ezra Pound can send her Part II of “Masterpiece.” At least one thing is going on, nay, even ahead of, schedule. Maybe while Kelly’s looking at it, I can stop obsessing about it long enough to get some real work done (‘Beauty is perfection’). I did manage to get most of the York cycle read today. That’s something.

GY79

This is Gannochy House. No, it isn’t very pretty. It houses 80 or so students, mostly PGs. It’s divided into two buildings (I’m in the one pictured), connected by the Common Room. Each floor has its own kitchen, which serves as the common area, because there’s only one Common Room for the whole building. Bummer, I know. Now, for some quick pics of my room:

a) b) c)

a) Taken from the corner with my sink.
b) My desk and notice board. This is the only area we are allowed to put anything on the wall. I’m in desperate need of a calendar for the last 3 months of 2008, so if anyone wants to cut up a calendar they have and send it to me…
c) The one place where I’ve broken the rule. (I so wanted to put up my “medieval ladies” above my bed, agh!) Since Sarah has Sophie (see photo on right, a blast from the past, our room at the Vines), I put up MGMOA’s “Salmagundi Club” exhibit postcard, another partially clad impressionistic woman standing before a mirror. I’ve decided to name her Verity, for truth (Sophie comes from sophos, meaning wisdom).

Anyways, that’s my room. I like it. It reminds me a little of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, like I should be putting milk on my windowsill.

P.S.
I’m also desperately in need of some twisty ties. I can’t find them anywhere! My bread and frozen veggies would like to be tied off properly. Since you’ll be sending me cards anyway, could you spare a few…? 😉

Drink lots of fluids

Yesterday we were successful and finally made it up to Edinburgh Castle. On our way up to the castle, we stopped at St Giles Church (Presbyterian, of course) where you had to pay £2 to take pictures. So I didn’t. The stained glass work was lovely, though, dating mostly from the 1800s, depicting various parables, the Passion, and the first few chapters of Acts–which I am currently reading, so that was cool. Made realize, again, how I’m glad for a Christian upbringing because I couldn’t imagine how baffling (or boring) visiting famous cathedrals would be (or looking at any major art work from the medieval and Renaissance periods) without having the background to say, “Oh, that one is of the Ten Virgins,” or “That’s Judas buying a field.” A working knowledge of the Gospels and Acts is pretty much essential for studying Art History.

In case you were worried, no, I did not forget Seamus. (For the reasoning behind Seamus the Traveling Duck, watch Amelie.)

On our way down the Royal Mile, we stopped for lunch and the Writer’s Museum. I got to see Sir Waverly Scott’s manuscripts and proofs and sympathized with his editors for he did not cross his t’s, dot his i’s, or close his vowels. I also learned that R. L. Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in less than a week, but that he had also spent “many years” thinking about it.

Alas, as the afternoon was waning, we decided to put off the rest of the Royal Mile for today. We instead went to the Royal Scottish Museum, where I spent an anxious hour looking at the exhibits in distraction as my mom hastened back to retrace our steps to find her purse. Fortunately, a woman who had seen her leave it on a bench took it to the police station where my mom recovered it. We ate dinner at The Elephant House, where J. K. Rowling wrote much of the first Harry Potter. Then we came back to the B&B and discovered that I was indeed getting sick.

So, instead of going into town today to see the rest of the Royal Mile… I slept. With my immune system the way that it is, I can’t afford to get really sick at the start of term, especially when I’m not registered with a GP yet! We think it’s the amount of exhaust I’ve been breathing in and that it has irritated my throat and lungs–I remember the feeling from the last time I came over. Last time I didn’t get sick but I also wasn’t 1) Taking immuno-suppressants, 2) Already recovering from a sinus infection. So I’m resting and drinking copious amounts of water and taking pills every 4-6 hours. I’m disappointed about not seeing Holyrood, but I have the chance to see it again. Resting, however, has been good. My chest is still tight but not as tight, and I’m still coughing but not with the same intensity. I’m going to brew some tea and continue reading Life of Pi.

I can’t believe that I’m going up to University tomorrow. Eep!