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The Rothschild Canticles: Art and Mysticism in Flanders and the Rhineland Circa 1300.

The Rothschild Canticles (New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 404), which derives its name from the collection of a former owner, Edmond de Rothschild, is an illustrated devotional florilegium containing an extremely unusual series of mystical images. The circumstances of its creation are unknown. Though it was described by M. R. James at the beginning of this century, the manuscript has not hitherto been studied in detail; but it has now received strikingly imaginative treatment. On stylistic grounds, it is dated here to the years around 1300 and assigned to French Flanders; in particular, it is compared with a group of manuscripts from the former diocese of Therouanne. A description of the whole manuscript is given in the appendices, but the book's principal focus is on part I (ff. 1-106), which consists of a series of openings with texts on the versos and full-page miniatures on the facing rectos; in addition, the versos contain smaller miniatures (somewhat oddly here called |vignettes') showing prophets or seers who witness the scene opposite and whose gestures are sometimes inspired by what they see, as if intended to stimulate a mimetic response. A full transcription and edition of the texts in this section is given, and most of their sources (biblical, liturgical and patristic) are identified; all the openings are reproduced in the plates. To add to the complexity, tinted drawings of episodes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers, apparently added soon after the completion of the original programme, are dispersed (without textual accompaniment) through the manuscript.

The bulk of the book is taken up with a detailed exploration of the subject-matter of the miniatures in relation to their accompanying texts. But the study goes far beyond the elucidation of iconography and its sources and analyses the whole as a devotional programme in the light of the practices of and writings by and for (mainly female) mystics in Flanders and the Rhineland in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Since this is a predominantly German context, style and content seem here to be pointing in slightly different directions. Hamburger's interest is in the way verbal and visual images help to structure mystical experience; he sets out to demonstrate that the texts and images of this manuscript compose an ordered sequence of aids to contemplation. The disjointed strings of verbal images connect with the illustrations more by association than by narrative or exegetical coherence. The miniatures themselves are also not easy to understand: this was no Bible of the illiterate. Indeed, since many of Hamburger's investigations of individual miniatures rein as much on his command of external texts as on those found within the manuscript, and since the chapters of the book treat the miniatures in groups which do not exactly correspond to the order in which they appear, it is arguable that the programme is made to seem more coherent than is actually the case.

Nevertheless, Hamburger does succeed in establishing a convincing progression, from the paradisaical miniatures evoking the joy of the inhabitants of heaven, in scenes such as the Adoration of the Lamb by the dancing virgins, to the images of the Trinity. The primary textual source for the mystical ascent is the Song of Songs (from which the manuscript takes the second half of its name), whose bridal imagery is interpreted in the miniatures not so much as an allegory of Christ and the Church as mystically in terms of the relationship between Christ and the individual soul. The ascent culminates in the scenes of mystical union featuring the Sponsa in the mystic bedchamber. Just occasionally the material seems to be forced into shape: the miniature on f. 73.sup.r is described as the coronation of the Sponsa and the climax of the series if images of mystical union, whereas the fact that the woman is haloed, and that the texts on the opposite page are largely drawn from the Office of the Assumption, suggest that she may in fact represent the Virgin Mary. But the difference is less than it might appear, since Hamburger's account of the other Marian miniatures makes it clear that the Virgin herself is presented as the consort and embodiment of Divine Wisdom, an exemplary. Sponsa.

Finally, the reader reaches the Trinitarian miniatures which gradually dispense with anthropomorphism in favour of ever-changing configurations of clouds, suns and veils. The ultimate vision is imageless: the apophatic theology of this section poses particularly sharply the problem of the role of the image as the medium of the soul's striving towards God, which is discussed with subtlety in the conclusion. The great virtue and importance of this book lies in the way that it explores the visual aspect of the often erotic and ecstatic corporeal imagery not seriously tackled since Huizinga. Hamburger is here applying and developing some of the ideas found in his previous articles, which have examined the distinctively Dominican and Cistercian context of much of this imagery. It is an outstanding example of an art-historical study which neither uses iconography as a form of academic dismemberment, nor imposes an ill-fitting theoretical framework on its material, but instead makes real strides towards understanding the place of images in the visual and experiential spirituality of the later Middle Ages.
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Author:Kauffmann, Martin
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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