The bawdier images and hybrid monsters seen in these works have been adopted by today’s meme
culture, and are fodder for online listicles
that delight with their outlandish trees of penises, rabbits humping humans, and men defecating from tall heights while figures below catch the refuse in jugs. These bizarre scenes occur in both religious and secular manuscripts: A French translation of the Bible by Jean de Sy, begun in 1355 for King John II of France, features a graphic illustration of Abraham circumcising himself, and the early 14th-century Maastricht Hours
features one monkey blowing a recorder up the ass of another monkey, who then blows a horn, à la The Human Centipede
. Oh, what would St. Bernard say if he had seen this?
Academics have tried
to prove that these images were in some way necessary to the text and its scholastic intention, but their arguments often seem tenuous. Little is known about what drove craftsmen to paint some of the weirder images in illuminated manuscripts. But the fact of their existence feels like a small victory for imagination and artistic identity in an age of inherited artistic formulae that heavily relied on scriptural dogma and complex religious symbols.
From the midpoint of the first millennium, missionaries preaching Christianity throughout Europe would carry opulently illustrated Bibles in order to seduce pagans and nonbelievers. The mechanism of the book enhanced their visual effects: Turning the pages allowed the polished gold leaf to catch the light at different angles, creating a glimmering, living object.
During this time, Christians at most levels of society tended to be illiterate, with limited access to the written word (holy texts were exclusively transcribed in Latin, a language spoken mainly by the clergy and wealthiest upper classes). The images in the illuminated manuscripts provided crucial aids to understanding a text’s narrative, as well as the very precepts of their religion.
Early Irish religious texts such as the Book of Durrow, the Book of Armagh, or—most famous of them all—the Book of Kells include whole pages of non-figurative designs, sometimes hiding letters or words. These “carpet pages” are busy and abstract, their interlaced spirals making them difficult to decipher, even for manuscript experts. The ornamental words would have also proved barely legible to the few capable of reading at that time.
One can’t help but suspect that this intricacy is meant to visually convey the dazzling mystery of the word of God. But it was also undoubtedly art for art’s sake: the artistic impulse let loose. There is a beautiful doubleness to this. Just as these images lured the illiterate masses to religion, they also revealed—and obscured—further depths to devout followers, who found spiritual value in the unknowable.