Hugh of Saint Victor: socio-economics of copying

Mystic Ark of Hugh of St. Victor

To prepare for lectures he gave about 880 years ago, Hugh of Saint Victor painted an extraordinarily intricate, multi-color teaching aid on the wall of the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris.  The painting was probably about 4 meters tall and 4.5 meters wide.  It was “the most complex single work of figural art from the entire Middle Ages.”  Called the Mystic Ark, it placed a neo-platonic macrocosm / microcosm into a God-centered understanding of creation.  Unfortunately, neither the painting nor any copy or drawing of it has survived.

However, one of Hugh’s students wrote a 42-page verbal description of the Mystic Ark painting.  That description is a dull, matter-of-fact, non-literary text with “bare, utilitarian, even hurried description.”  It is not effectively organized, step-by-step instructions for duplicating the Mystic Ark.  It contains no illuminations or drawings of any parts or aspects of the painting.  Verbal descriptions of paintings were apparently so little valued in the Middle Ages that no other such descriptions longer than a single sentence has survived.  Nonetheless, the student’s verbal description of the Mystic Ark became a highly popular text by medieval standards.  Eight-eight manuscripts of it have survived across nearly nine centuries to the present.[1]

With years of research and painstaking effort, Conrad Rudolph, professor of medieval art history at the University of California, Riverside, has visually reconstructed the Mystic Ark.  Rudolph synthesized the textual description with relevant images that have survived from the period, place, and culture of the text:

Rudolph digitally reconstructed the painting using hundreds of individual images from a contemporary work of art, images that range from signs of the zodiac, celestial choirs and a map of the inhabited world to the biblical stories of the Exodus and the Ark of Noah, the arrival of Jesus Christ, and the Last Judgment. The stylistically consistent images were then painstakingly recombined digitally – cut up, flipped, altered, joined – over a period of nearly eight years… . [UCR Newsroom]

The U.S. National Gallery of Art commissioned a full-sized, digital printing of the Rudolph’s reconstruction. The print was first displayed on December 14, 2008 for Rudolph’s lecture at the National Gallery.  I attended that lecture and took a picture of the reconstructed Mystic Ark with my portable digital camera. That copy is displayed at the top of this post (a better, higher-resolution image, courtesy of Professor Rudolph, is here).

Factors other than the absence of digital cameras help to account for the popularity of the verbal description of the Mystic Ark.  The Mystic Ark concerned knowledge of major importance to the elite of its time.  The painting of the Mystic Ark was huge.  Because it would have cost far too much in parchment to paint on parchment, the Mystic Ark could only have been painted on walls. Hence a painting of the Mystic Ark could not be transported  and exhibited elsewhere.  Because the Mystic Ark has important, intricate details, a scaled-down painting or drawing of it would have obscured  lessons and arguments that it sought to teach.  Thus its specific content precluded cheaper, smaller-scale visual reproductions.  A verbal text was much cheaper to copy than was a large-scale wall painting.  For gaining knowledge of the Mystic Ark, a verbal description provided considerable value leverage.

The verbal description of the Mystic Ark also served personal and political interests. Among monks and cannons striving for places in hierarchies of knowledge and status, having a master or other teacher visually recreate the Mystic Ark showed that person’s authority. The imprecision of the verbal description accentuated the visual recreator’s authority.  The verbal description of the Mystic Ark thus served personal and political interests as a writerly text.[2]

At the same time, the intrinsic connection between the verbal description and the painting signaled knowledge beyond an endless stream of man-made textual arguments. In his Didascalicon: De studio legendi (1128), which was written about the same time as his lectures on the Mystic Ark, Hugh affirmed the unity of knowledge.  He declared that reading and meditation are the two principal activities by which a person advances in knowledge, and he set out comprehensive instruction on the activity of reading. The unity of knowledge assured that even a crude verbal description of the Mystic Ark ultimately led to the same knowledge as the painting of the Mystic Ark.  Shared confidence in the unity of knowledge supported broad demand for a politically potent verbal description.

The Morgan Picture Bible provides an interesting counterpoint to the painting and verbal description of the Mystic Ark.  Monastic readers dedicated to life-long study probably would consider the Morgan Picture Bible to be an extravagantly expensive device useful only for instructing the inattentive and illiterate among the rich and powerful.  However, like the painting and text of the Mystic Ark, the Morgan Picture Bible asserts the unity of knowledge. The Mystic Ark emphasizes the unity of salvation history and the natural order of the cosmos.  The Morgan Picture Bible, in contrast,  emphasizes the unity of salvation history and personal, bodily experience.

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[1] The statements in this and the previous paragraphs have in the past been a matter of considerable scholarly debate. I assert them based on Conrad Rudolph’s convincing recent arguments in his ongoing work on the Mystic Ark. He described his work in two recent lectures at the U.S. National Gallery of Art: on December 14, 2008, “Time, Space, and the Progress of History in the Medieval Map”; and on December, 15, 2008, ” “Cosmic Politics: Hugh of St. Victor’s ‘The Mystic Ark’ and the Struggle over Elite Education in the Twelfth Century.”  See also Rudolph, Conrad (2004) “First, I find the center point”: reading the text of Hugh of Saint Victor’s The Mystic Ark. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, v. 94, pt. 4. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society.  The quoted phrases are from id. pp. 1-2, 76.  The dimensions of the painting are Rudolph’s estimates, based on his extensive work in reconstructing the painting.  The page count for the textual description is for a modern critical edition.  The textual description of the Mystic Ark orginally did not have a proper title, but it is now commonly titled The Mystic Ark.  To avoid confusion between the text and the painting, I explicitly specify either the textual or painted Mystic Ark.

[2] Such interests also motivate scholars to take a much more active role in organizing texts.  Developments of tables of contents, summaries, consistent chapter and verse numberings, indices, new page layouts, alphabetic indexing, and other such information technologies were quite dramatic with the rise of scholasticism from about 1140 to 1240.  See  Illich, Ivan (1993) In the vineyard of the text: a commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. The agency of readers has become a major strand in the ironic, essentalist narrative of post-modernism.

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