Revisiting the illumination of liturgical texts: an amplification of Word made flesh?

In his masterful BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects, British Museum director Neil MacGregor guides his listerners through the famous collection. Beginning with the knapped flint knives of prehistoric humans, MacGregor progresses through time and space as he surveys the agricultural, artistic, literary, ritual, and technological developments of diverse cultures.

One segment struck me as especially pertinent for PTB. Here, MacGregor discusses a tughra, or the illuminated signature of Suleiman the Magnificent, the great Ottoman sultan of the 16th century. Per MacGregor, the tughra served a purpose not unlike the great seals or crests of today’s governments. A document which contained Suleiman’s tughra carried the greatest imprimatur of the Ottoman state. The tughra, then, represents a literal extension of imperial power.

The tughra MacGregor examines in this episode had been detached from its accompanying declaration in the intervening years. Interestingly, while the tughra is written in an extremely ornate, complicated, and difficult to forge Arabic, surviving documents contemporary to Suleiman’s reign suggest that the declaration itself was written in Turkish. As MacGregor notes, the sultan’s signature is in the language of God’s direct revelation to Muhammad, the Qur’an. Suleiman’s tughra not only legitimizes imperial action but also reflects the divine sanction of Suleiman as caliph.

Islam, unlike many movements and historical periods of western Christianity, has long fostered a strong aniconic tradition. The Muslim aversion to the depiction of human beings in art, and the Prophet in particular, has spurred the illumination of text as a significant artistic tradition. Illuminated texts decorate not only the Qur’an and other religious texts, but also mosques and nominally secular documents such as Suleiman’s tughra.

The Islamic illumination tradition exemplified by the Ottoman tughra offers a counterpoint to the more modern Christian notion that liturgical text serves primarily a didactic purpose and only secondarily an aesthetic purpose. The “interim” Missals of the immediate peri- and post-conciliar periods exhibit a gradual decline in the amount of illumination. Missals issued just after the Concilium’s first instruction often still contain a Canon page. In just a few years, some editions eliminated prints altogether. A Missel Romain (Tournai: Desclée, 1966?) I once examined contained absolutely no pictoral or textual illumination at all, just Times large point font throughout the liturgical book.

The notion that liturgy should be heard and not read hearkens to the very origins of Christianity. The reservation of literacy to an elite in the Levant and Mediterranean of the first century CE logically implies that most early Christians could only understand the Word and liturgy through the interpetation of a liturgical presider, a community leader, or other literate interpreter. The rise of literacy, as exemplified by Suleiman’s tughra, suggests that over time rising rates of literacy advanced the illumination of the written word as a further enrichment of spoken meaning. Christian iconography of the medieval period, for example, certainly did not shy away from human representation. Yet late medieval and renaissance painting often contain Latin phrases which are interwoven into pictoral depictions. Medieval and peri-modern Christianity, though arguably still more focused on painted or sculpted representation as an aesthetic end, certainly combined text and iconography in profound and novel methods.

In my view, the recent turn towards liturgical text with little or no textual illumination declines to recognize and even celebrate the long tradition of amplifying the Word of the “made flesh” through illumination. Illumination captures the ephemeral breath of voice in a durable form well suited for contemplation and intellectual wandering. A reintroduction of textual illumination admits a balance between the ideal of formative Christianity’s oral culture and the later refinement of literary culture.

Christians believe that the proclamation of John’s prologue, et verbum caro factum est (“and the Word was made flesh”), offers an eternal salvation infinitely more impressive than the seal of any temporal ruler. Certainly then a textually illuminated glorification of the Word, the literary embodiment of Christ’s incarnation, surpasses a complete absence of calligraphic aestheticism.


    1. @Christian McConnell – comment #1:

      Thank you Christian for linking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art example. I was quite remiss in providing a link to the radio show but not the tughra itself.

      Here is the tughra found in the British Museum. The Met and British Museum examples are quite similar.

      For comparison’s sake, consider this late 15th century German “canon page”, also from the Met collection. A canon page is the often highly illuminated overleaf of the first page of the Roman Canon (i.e. Eucharistic Prayer I). The crucifix represents the “T” in the first word of the first phrase of the eucharistic prayer, te igitur clementissime pater (per the newer translation “To you, therefore, most merciful father …”) The differences between Christian iconic and Islamic aniconic illumination traditions are quite striking.

  1. The outstanding example of illuminated manuscript from Ireland is the Book of Kells (about 800 A.D.) in Trinity College, Dublin. Some view are at:
    This is not a Missal, but a Gospel Book. One of the illustrated pages is included, along with some other illustratons of historic Irish Christian art, in the new Roman Missal for Ireland. No decoration, however, of the script, and the book is not well produced. Pity about the translation, and a missed chance for a celebratory book. With computer technology these days, it should be possible to produce an attractive illuminated Book of Gospels. When I get time, now …

  2. ISTM that a large part of the genius of the medieval cathedral builders was their insight that people need literal images to think theological thoughts, and this resulted in stained glass windows that are *still* immediately perceptible as objects of great significance. And their value is not just a matter of their being beautiful, though that plays its part.

    I also note that though pictures are absent in mosques, they are far from absent in the private books by the greatest Muslim calligraphers and illuminators. The classic Persian ones especially remain wonders of communication and aesthetic and religious delight. They include some of the very greatest religious works of any sort, such as the Shah Nameh of the Shah Tamasp.

    I wonder whether or not the absence of contemporary pictures/illustrations of Catholic art has contributed to the waning of the Faith. Those “abstract” stained glass windows of today tell no one anything about the mysteries. (Oops, there’s one at Chartres I’d say is an exception.) Name one great contemporary Catholic painter/illustrator/glass artist. The closest we have come to great religious visual art are certain movies with unforgetable images — moving images, but images nevertheless. (I think immediately of the Baptism of the child in one of the Godfather movies — it is simultaneously a picture of a possible redemption and of condemnation to Hell.)

    Last note: as one who used to do a bit of calligraphy and illumination, I protest putting the turgha in the same box with pictorial illuminations. The goals of the two are very different, as are the skills producing them.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #4:

      Thank you Ann for this very insightful post. I very much agree that the tughra should not be equated with European Christian illumination. I did not intend to equate the two expressions, but I can see how you and perhaps other readers might have arrived at this conclusion.

      There are some passing similarities between medieval and renaissance Christian illumination and the tughra. While the tughra is the official signature of the Ottoman sultan and therefore the emblem of his temporal power and that of his state, often European nobility and persons of means commissioned Christian illumination. The tughra is a direct manifestation of temporal power, while Christian illumination in some instances communicated indirect temporal power. In the Christian West and East, a commissioned depiction of Christus Rex or an commissioned icon of the Pantocrator, while directly communicating to the faithful the notion of Christ as sovereign creator and law-giver respectively, also bears valences of human wealth, social privilege, and temporal authority.

      Ann: The goals of the two are very different, as are the skills producing them.

      I am not sure what you mean here. As in Orthodoxy, where an icon-writer spends a period of time in discernment, fasting, and prayer before writing an icon, I would suspect that perhaps western Christian illuminators also prepared spiritually for their divinely-guided labor.

      I know very little about Muslim culture save very broad strokes. I would not be surprised if the calligraphic illumination of holy texts, calligraphic art, and the decoration of mosques also involved spiritual preparation. I will be sure to talk about this with my Islamic studies colleagues to see if they have greater insight into this question.

  3. For those interested in illuminate manuscripts, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore has a great collection from many places and eras. The Walters’ collection of oil paintings is not one of the greatest, but its collections of “minor” arts is splendid. A greatly under-appreciated museum, probably because it just isn’t as well known as some of the mega-museums.

    Browse its collection at:

  4. Jordan —

    I’m no expert in books of hours, the illuminated non-liturgical works commissioned by the wealthy. But given the ones I know a bit (mostly in copies) it seems to me that they are not objects meant to proclaim the owners wealth and status, but were actual prayer books. (I read an article recently about how the scholars now use the smudges on the corner of a page to tell which prayers were the most popular — the more smudges, the more the owner went to that page.)

    The great works of the Limbourg brothers are indeed opulent. But even they aren’t just bragging about money. Other works, like that of the great Rohan Master include quite lavishly decorated pages also touchingly humble pictures as well, and its pictures are primarily about the characters in them. The crucifixion page is anything but an image of a triumphant Christ.

    As I see such works the prayers, presented in beautiful writing, are limited to common prayers of the whole Church, and they are familiar to anyone reading them. The pictures, on the other hand, are explicitly or implicitly the expressions of the artist or person who commisioned the work, and the pictures show people of a particular culture at a particular time with particular expressions on their faces.

    In the Rohan Master’s work, done early in the 14th century a very, very common expression on the faces is one of terrible sadness, a sadness pervading everywhere. Even God looks terribly sad viewing the world. This is not surprising when one considers that people alive at the time must have had strong memories of the Black Death, the plague that killed the rich and powerful equally with the poor.

    That sort of sadness is not apparent in, for instance, the illuminations of the Hours of Etienne Chevalier, done a generation or two later, when the horrible memories must not have been so common. In that work the countryside is pastoral, the faces are pleasant, and, no doubt, life was generally much. much happier than it had been in the previous 150 years.

  5. So the personal message(s) of the pictures are, I think, a very different goal from the messages of the prayers in writing.

    Too bad people don’t commission them these days.

  6. This has been a most interesting discussion on this thread. As someone on the illuminator side of illumination, it seems to me that there are four purposes at work (at least in modern illumination of sacred scripture (such as the Book of the Gospels), or ritual texts (such as the Missal) or prayer books (such as the Liturgy of the Hours). The first purpose is the glory of God, that is to create a beautiful and worthy book for public prayer. The second purpose is to explicate the meaning of the text visually that is not simply a vehicle for the subjective vision or interpretation of the artist/illuminator, but which relates either directly or indirectly to the Church’s theological and iconographic tradition. The third purpose is to deepen the reader’s engagement of the text in general and those parts,of,the text that are referenced in the illuminations in partucular. The fourth purpose is the personal devotion of the illuminator him/herself, both in meditating on the texts themselves, in determining what parts of the text to illuminate and how they fit into the overall design of each page as well as the entire book, and in the execution of the illuminations.

  7. Charles,

    I have to disagree a bit about subjective/personal/particular elements in illuminations, and, indeed, in all religious art. While it’s true that the universal has its own appeal, it seems to me that universal themes are valuable mainly not only because they are about *every* one but because they are about *each* one of us.

    In other words, there is no universal meaning without some reference to us singulars. And, it seems to me, most people love *detailed* work because to them it looks most real. Why does it look most real? Because *reality*, when you get close to it, is usually detailed in the extreme. Generally, the more detailed a work is, the more real it seems to most people. A picture of the Virgin with generic eyes would not be very appealing.

    This is why I think that church art should always lean towards the realistic — because to most people that gives a greater illusion of reality. In other words, for most people realistic signs are more significant than undetailed, distorted or faint ones, though I grant you that if an artist knows what he or she is doing he/she can put a lot of meaning into an *apparently* simple picture (see Giotto). And, I think, the works that include the most expressive human figures are the most meaningful of all.

    Conclusion: if you want to communicate what a holy person is thinking and willing, express his/his internal state by very particular gesture and expression;

    True, some supremely gifted artists can make purely formal art (non-realistic art) that is beautiful and even expressive of the spirit (I’m thinking of Rothko here). But most can’t. So to get to the singular saving of each of us and to the particular love of Christ for each of us, our art generally needs to be quite detailed, quite concrete.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #11:
      Thank you for your comment. I think we are using the same terms but with somewhat different understandings. I’m an iconographer, so I’m not arguing for non-representational liturgical art, far from it! The Incarnation demands, I believe, that the human person always be represented in the visual art of the Church. This doesn’t necessarily require realistic naturalism, but abstraction, again, in my opinion isn’t adequate to the mystery of incarnate Word.

  8. Charles —

    Yes, we do seem to agree about the basics. Actually, I’m rather surprised at myself for defending realistic art of any sort. In my generation to be with it you had to welcome the early abstract art of Picasso et al as well as the abstract expressionists whose works looked like nothing at all to most people, not to mention the subsequent nonsense of minimalist art that has no accessible meaning at all.

    But I think the pendulum went too far that way. The narratives that are essential to theology and the stories of the saints require not just realism, but specification, detail, individuality. Years ago I read an article, whose author I forget, which said that no one picture of Jesus could ever tell the whole truth about Him, so it is necessary that there be many (even an infinite number?) of images to try to get at just what or Who He is. And I believe that each person’s perception of Him is probably somewhat different from every other person’s, that each of us has at least a slightly different role in revealing the great theological economy. No person is replaceable, and any expression of that person’s relation to the Lord is bound to express something about the Lord that no one else sees quite as well, something unique. So I say Yay individuality!

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