A Long Time Ago, There Was A Time

There was a time when castles were painted white:  pale warnings set in the world's wildest places.  Their floors were carpets of rushes whose starry flowers blossomed in vain against the sour smell of garbage and unwashed bodies.  There was a time when forks were considered effete and kings ate with their hands.  There was a time when ladies plucked their hairlines and men dyed their beards purple.  There was a time when a tournament was a graceless clash of up to 3,000 knights fitted into massive saddles draped with heraldic tapestries.  There was a time when a life could end with a simple sword thrust or the complications from a pin prick:  a time of violence and filth.  Blood and disease flourished in the gutters.

There was a time when people lived in shacks – airless and dark.  There was a time when light's invisible molecules pierced cathedral windows that arched into heaven and were spliced into fierce primaries:  blue, red and yellow.  The columns of color blessed the shadowy naves and transepts, the architectural crucifix.  There was a time of rags and of mud.  But it was a time of gold:  it dripped into embroideries, it was hammered into walls that writhed with alchemic life.  A knight's helmet could sprout antlers, grow branches, or cradle a falcon:  all golden symbols of his brutal ancestry.  There was a time when fear held men by the throat.

Yet it was also a time for books – spared from society's barbarism.  Before the firt printing presses began to smear and creak, manuscripts were illustrated by hand – 'illuminated'.  Decoration and calligraphy merged to birth tiny worlds of zoology and humanity that swirled like painted galaxies on skies of vellum and parchment.  A living filigree of crimson dragons, twisted vines, flowers, birds, ships, animals that drooled and glowered, twittering insects:  a hallucinogenic pattern that wove between letters and reclined within margins:  buzzing and rustling.

Within a single letter, a ship will balance on a triad of moss-colored waves while below, the gray shadows of dolphins and whales balanced between air and water.  Or, beneath a canopy dotted with fleur-de-lis, a king sits at a banquet, choosing from the plattes held up by his cowering servants.  Beasts and monsters were curled and cramped inside their etymological cages. 

Sometimes the letters sprouted leaves, serpent's heads that barked and spat, or faces with dark, Byzantine eyes.  Once the pen completed its essential outline of the initial, it lept from the artisan's fist, erupting into a madness of pointillism and populations.  Colors that were crushed out of berries, insects and herbs spilled into angles and curves that twisted into endless highways across the map of a single page.

There was a time when Art held a handkerchief to her nose to walk amongst the fog of humanity and stand at its shoulder.

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13 responses to “A Long Time Ago, There Was A Time

  1. Interesting that you used hallucinogenic patterns… Clearly not all that was hallucinogenic! My recollection is that a lot of the paints got the artists high… in the long term, they could go quite mad from the exposure. I think that's sad, but the legacy left for us to marvel at is incredible, raising an interesting question of whether the price was worth it…

  2. Great post! I actually got to see the Book of Kells once…it was breathtaking. What skill and talent, and what beautiful designs! The Word of God has never looked (to mortal eyes, at least) better.

  3. interesting post… and the art in the letters are quite beautiful…


  4. I love stuff like this – I could look at it for hours on end. And to think that not only were originals done by hand, but each copy was also done by hand. Makes me wish I had talent.
    Same goes for how buildings nowadays don't have the artistry and workmanship that they did years ago.

  5. 'Twas Beauty killed the beastliness, or at least presented an alternative. When all life is dark and grim, to have the word of God presented in such a fashion–illuminating letters indeed!

  6. Riss – sometimes only madness can explain such visions; I say that it was worth it, even though some scribes had to pay with their sanity.
    Alex – lucky girl!! Was it guarded, like a country's dearest treasure should be? I can't imagine what it would be like to actually see such a book. I wonder – what were the patrons' first reactions when it was presented to them?
    Candy – it took me hours to choose the illustrations that would best suit this post. Not that I minded!
    arbed – getting lost within another's workmanship is not such a bad thing; it's the best kind of wandering…
    Peg – the confrontations of alternatives, the interactions of opposites, were some of the most striking things about the Middle Ages.

  7. Alex – lucky girl!! Was it guarded, like a country's dearest treasure should be? I can't imagine what it would be like to actually see such a book. I wonder – what were the patrons' first reactions when it was presented to them?
    Oh, so guarded. Rightfully so. It's really cool, because every day a monk (?) comes in and turns a page, so the display is new each day. There are also a bunch of other old, ornate manuscripts. Plus, there's Trinity College Library, which has shelves up to the ceiling of old, old books and important documents. It was amazing.

  8. another gorgeous posting and letters with it. the detail, the care, the artistry … woe to the world that no longer holds them with such value.

  9. Beautifully written and thoughtfully presented again. Reading your posts is like walking through a classy gallery with a glass of champagne in the hand.

  10. Agreed. I wasn't anticipating being as blown away by the Book of Kells as I was. It's breathtaking.

  11. I completely agree. We got a chance to see it and Gospel Books in aroun 2000/01 at the National Gallery. It was magnificent. I stayed for ages.

  12. Quite lovely. Thanks for posting.

  13. Fantastic post, as all of your posts are! And such beautiful shots illustrating the artistry that went into their crafting.

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