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Graphic Devices and the Early Decorated Book.

Brown, Michelle P., Ildar H. Garipzanov, and Benjamin C. Tilghman, eds, Graphic Devices and the Early Decorated Book (Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture), Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2017; hardback; pp. 316; 76 colour, 7 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. [pounds sterling]60.00; ISBN 9781783272266.

Christianity is a religion of signs. Early Christians indeed believed that God could puncture the barriers between heaven and earth to reveal his will through visual messaging. Little wonder then that sacred books for these believers were objects comprised of more than just mundane words on a page, but divinely inspired entities--where the designer could deploy graphic symbols, letters, gems, and even texture and colours to imbue the text with deeper spiritual meaning--which, if interpreted properly, offered the 'reader' a precious taste of the sacred plane. Yet, as the editors of this volume argue, modern scholars tend to ignore 'the visual nature of writing even in lavishly decorated late antique and medieval books, preferring to "look through" writing to the meaning it contains' (p. 2). Seeking to counter this 'logocentrism', the fourteen inspiring chapters examine the symbolic meanings of ornament from a variety of methodological angles and theoretical perspectives to decipher the 'rafts of underlying meaning' (p. 3) in this graphicacy over a wide spectrum of cultures.

What follows is a brief summation of the chapters that I particularly appreciated. Chapter 1 opens in a recently Christian mid-fourth century Roman Empire to discuss the calligraphic monogram found on the dedication page of the Calendar of 354. Ildar Garipzanov argues that the creator of our calendar, Furius Dionysius Filocalus, wielded techniques like those used by modern graphic designers, which employ contours to create visualized concepts. Capitalizing on the links between drawing and writing, Furius crafted a monogram for its recipient, the Roman noble Valentius, that not only reflected contemporary trends in personal monograms, but also steeped his image in Christian and Neoplatonic messaging to appeal to Valentius's appreciation of Christian and pagan learning.

Lawrence Nees's chapter on quire marks in Frankish and Islamic manuscripts in the seventh and eighth centuries shows how graphicacy can be used to tackle important historiographical issues from hitherto untried perspectives. Deftly guiding the reader through the heated debates surrounding the date, production, and contents of the earliest Qur'ans, Nees suggests that richly decorated verse markers are a feature of Qur'ans dating from the eighth century or possibly earlier. By comparing them to similar marks found in seventh-century Latin manuscripts, Nees argues that by 700 CE there was a thriving production of 'richly decorated manuscripts [...] of which we have only fragments today' (p. 97). Moreover, he sees in this sharing of techniques evidence of far more entangled Islamic and Christian worlds in the seventh and eighth centuries than is usually suggested.

I found Cynthia Halm's chapter on the sign of the cross 'as both metaphor and metonym' (p. 101) particularly rich. She demonstrates that by the Middle Ages the cross as a sign had developed a 'tremendous flexibility of meaning' (p. 102). Early Christians emphasized Christ's victory on the cross, a triumph that not only thwarted the Devil, but allowed God's grace to descend upon the earth. In a Roman world, where crucifixion was a particularly disgraceful death, Christ's victory also offered a more palatable message for prospective converts. This might explain aspects of the emperor Constantine's conversion, where famously before the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 he had witnessed a vision of a shining cross in the sky accompanied by the words hoc signo victor eris, 'by this sign you will conquer'. Constantine's successors had adopted and adapted this Christian imagery. For humbler Romans, wearing a crucifix or making the sign of the cross granted the power to avert evil or bad luck. For medieval intellectuals astronomy and theology went together. As Hahn concludes, 'the cross of the early Middle Ages serves as the ultimate graphical sign. It forms letters and words, it shapes actions and bodies, but so much more, it organizes and rules the heavens' (pp. 122-23).

Benjamin Tilghman insists that the image of Jesus found in the ornate pages of the Book of Kells's (c. 800) depiction of the Temptation of Christ, which the modern audience primarily enjoys for its aesthetics, evoked a deeper and more spiritual response in its medieval audience. For example, the letters 'knotted and woven together' with 'blue, purple, and scarlet' painted spaces between them create 'the idea of the divine text as a veil which must be opened or passed through on the way to spiritual learning' (p. 177). By weaving his words and images, the designer reminded the reader to not just read the text with his eyes 'but through the spirit, lest scripture remain a veil' (p. 177).

This attractive volume replete with ornate images reveals the insights gained when one understands the symbolic thought-world behind the theological messages contained within these graphic devices. Indeed, to rely only on the verbal and ignore the visual is to risk missing much of the ornamental book's intended meaning.

MICHAEL EDWARD STEWART, University of Queensland
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Author:Stewart, Michael Edward
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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