French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

La figure du chantre dans l’iconographie médiévale


by Isabella Livorni

The subject of Professor Isabelle Marchesin’s presentation in the series Iconographie musicale et l’art occidental at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art on Friday, January 6, 2017, was on “La figure du chantre dans l’iconographie médiévale.” Professor Marchesin focused on images spanning from 845 to the end of the thirteenth century, and this corpus’ status as one of the most ingenious and innovative of the Middle Ages. The lack of any kind of representation for musical iconography allowed every illuminator to make his own motifs that drew on (among other things) a mythological imaginary, musical cosmology, and a rational scientific organization of proportions to create aesthetic principles.

The representation of chant, Marchesin pointed out, underwent a number of particularly notable developments and transformations in the time period she examined in her talk. Initially, instrumental music was used as a metaphor for chant and vocal music. In order to illustrate this point, she showed a manuscript illumination of King David playing the vielle in the initial “B” of the first psalm, Beatus vir. In the illumination, the law of proportions between the various circles present in the illuminations becomes a “semiotic abstraction”: David’s instrumental music is proportionally connected with the vine growing beneath his feet, which signifies the Word of God, which is, in turn, sung through chant.

Thus, in the case of the illumination of Beatus vir, the presence of instrumental music along with allegorical elements and the proportional relationships between different elements in the iconography all converge to represent an image of chant and singing that is closely wedded to the idea of theoretical music – scientia candendi, the science of singing. Professor Marchesin demonstrated the connection between iconographic representations of song and iconographic representations of the mathematical order that supports the music and keeps the song within the divine law in a number of illuminations from the antiphonary of Guido Oacrius.

From here, Marchesin moved on to examining the development of the iconography accompanying psalm 97, “Cantate domino canticum novum.” As she noted, chant is always present for the manuscript reader, since it was an integral part of the liturgy; thus, we can assume certain contexts of chant whether or not the singer depicted is singing or not (in other words, whether his mouth is open or closed). The most important component for depicting chant and singers, then, by the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth century, would be the writing of chant itself, which, for a medieval reader, would subliminally represent a sonic element as well.

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