Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I love medieval Spanish illuminations.  They are unlike any other book illuminations: ultra graphic, brilliantly colored, often oddly designed.  They can be divided into two fairly distinct time periods: the Mozarabic style of the late 8th to 11th century and those from the 12the century on.  The term "Mozarab" refers to the Christians who lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) after the Arab invasion of 711.  The art of this time period appears to be a mix of established Christian, invading Arab, much older Visigoth, Asturian, and possibly early North African art.  Cordoba and Toledo were the most important centers for Mozarabic art.

I have charted many of the illuminations from several Mozarbic texts.  This is my adaptation of Adam and Eve from the Morgan Beatus (property of the J. Pierpont Morgan Library).

A "beatus" was an illustrated commentary on the Apocalypse.  A " dense series of Apocalypse illustrations was produced in North Africa.  We know this from its spectacular traces in the Iberian Peninsula, where the series was taken over in the eighth century by a monk names Beatus as an integral part of his Commentary on the Apocalypse. ... The history of the Morgan Beatus began around the middle of the tenth century, when a Spanish monk and painter named Maius received from the abbot of the Leonese monastery of St. Michael a commission for a copy of Beatus's Commentary."  (John Williams)  (I fondly call this design "Big Hair In The Garden"!)

The subject of the Apocalypse allowed free rein to the illustrators of the texts.  Strange animals, odd angels, and wild happenings are all depicted in strikingly bold colors.  This marvelous leopard from the Morgan Beatus actually sports a moustache!  (Please note: the colors of these adaptations are mine, not those of the original illustrations.)

The Morgan Beatus is replete with fantastic borders, such as this one used to frame a sample of the lettering found in the manuscript.  Even in the lettering, the Spanish Mozarabic manuscripts stand out as something radically different from what was being done in the rest of Europe at the time. 

And a last example from the Morgan Beatus, one that seems somewhat more familiar as it reminds me of folk designs found all over Europe in paintings and embroideries. 

The Biblia Hispalense, a 10th-century Spanish manuscript, displays very obvious influence from Arabic sources.  This bird and fish actually form a capital letter, and the original illustration has "The Beginnings of the Book of Daniel" written in Arabic script on the bird's neck.

All of these designs, in black-and-white, can be found in my book, Here Be Drolleries, along with many others, especially from the Morgan Beatus. 

To see original pictures of Mozarabic illustrations, I recommend these web sites.

Morgan Beatus -- Morgan Beatus - Google Search

Biblia Hispalense -- biblia hispalense - Google Search

Girona Beatus -- Girona Beatus - "First, unique and unrepeatable edition"Gerona Cathedral

Liebana Beatus -- Beatus de Liebana, Codex Urgellensis

The following books are highly recommended for further study.

Mentre, Mireille.  Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Williams, John.  Early Spanish Manuscript Illumination.  New York: George Braziller, 1977.

Williams, John.  A Spanish Apocalypse: The Morgan Beatus Manuscript.  New York: George Braziller, 1991.  (This is a facsimile reproduction of the manuscript.)

Wixom, William.  Picturing the Apocalypse: Illustrated Leaves from a Medieval Spanish Manuscript.  New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.