Freedom and agency have always been concepts difficult to reconcile with what is known (or perceived) about the production of textual and pictorial works in the early and high Middle Ages. Focusing on the illuminated copies of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentarium in Apocalypsin – a central work of the early Hispanic Church – this paper examines to what extent the illuminators who produced them enjoyed a degree of freedom in their creations in relation to the authoritative word of Scripture. It also discusses how some of these examples may be construed as cases of artistic agency.
The 11th-century marble sarcophagus of the young noble Alfonso Ansúrez is both exceptionally clear and frustratingly enigmatic. Inscriptions label every detail, down to a cup labeled ‘calix’, and large carved figures signal the viewer through pronounced gestures. Nonetheless, the tomb’s details do not conform to standard funerary iconography. Unlike the typical medieval representation of the deceased as a nude, androgynous soul, the young Alfonso is shown fully dressed and animate. This paper argues that Alfonso is carved in life to ensure his reception of essential last rites, which may not have been observed before his untimely death. The carefully marked details actualize in stone a ritual indispensable for the salvation of his soul.
Depictions of demons and devils are cultural amalgamations, products of multiple social and religious discourses. Their liminal bodies are an assemblage of transgressive signs within western Christianity: dark skin, nakedness, oversized features and bestial forms. In particular, the many manuscript illuminations of the fall of the rebel angels that arise in 15th-century France and Flanders dynamically reveal the hegemonic structures inherent in demon embodiment, yet these images have received little attention. In the Christian creation narrative, after their heavenly rebellion is defeated the rebel angels are permanently cast out of heaven and their falling bodies transmogrify from angel to demon. These mutating bodies symbolize the introduction of evil into the human world, the physical manifestation of divine judgment: the incarnation of damnation. This paper is the first study of demonic embodiment in late gothic French and Flemish depictions of the fall of the rebel angels and I will argue these hybrid angel/demon forms offer unique perspectives on late medieval religious devotion and the effects of sin, rebellion, and punishment on the non-human body. They are, in one sense, a study in oppositions and the nature of religious duality (light vs. dark, human vs. beast, clothed vs. unclothed, divine vs. damned, good vs. evil). Yet, for the aristocratic viewer, they may also offer righteous confirmation of the consequences of failed rebellion in a period which saw multiple uprisings and revolts against the wealthy classes.