In the first place it was holy, the word. Note the remarkable picture of Mary with the Baby Jesus cradled in an enormous book,* which doesn’t prove she could read or that the child could. He appears to be asleep, strapped in, halo intact. It proved that the Bible was the word of God. Illumination was for enchantment—letters, words or passages were painted in gold leaf, or blue from lapis lazuli and indigo, red from iron or the pregnant body of a Mediterranean insect, copper for green. Illuminated words were windows through which holy spirits and angels singing could traverse the vast distance between holiness and us. On something like a ray of sunlight in the early morning, (starlight after dark), magical beings could slide into the meditation room where monks or nuns prayed or sang from antiphonals (song books) taller than the younger members of the sect, large print so everyone could sing the same notes at the same time. Gold words were linked to God, Green to Saint Catherine, Red to Jesus, Blue to the Virgin Mary—like the internet— click, and from afar would come information, inspiration, salvation, healing, passion, ecstasy, holiness. Lecto divina, worship of the word. Mystics sat with saints and angels. Jesus and Mary whispered into the ears of scribes who painted slowly, carefully. Occasionally elves slipped into morning devotions, or found their way through the quills and brushes in the scriptorium to decorate letters, to fill border space. They were drollarys—funny green people wearing squash caps, sucking wine and reading little books of their own, books inside of books. Quickly these little people were spirited away to secular work which grew up around the church the way villages created cathedrals and then surrounded them with cities. Words wanted decoration in the Middle Ages, and people wanted beautiful books they could hold in their hands, tie onto their belts, slip into satchels thrown across the back of a burro, take on crusades. Scribes copied books and illuminators illustrated them, parchmenters made paper out of the skins of cows or sheep. That stouffe that we wrytte upon: and is made of beestis skynnes; is somtyme called parchment somtyme velem. A careful scribe could select the animal in person, an animal to be skinned, a quite visceral holiness.
*Rohan Hours, 1331
** Kiss of Judas, Folio from Evangelariumca., 1500Illumination on vellum, Boston Public Library, Josiah H. Benton Fund, Ms. pb. Med. 18
* From Next to the Last Word, Susan Bright, 1998, Plain View Press.
In Honor of National Poetry Month and the Austin International Poetry Festival April 12-15. Plain View Press is hosting the book exhibit for AIPF this year and the studio will be open for browsing 10 AM to dark. In you're in Austin, email firstname.lastname@example.org for directions.
© Susan Bright, 1998.
Susan Bright is the author of nineteen books of poetry. She is the editor of Plain View Press which since 1975 has published one-hundred-and-fifty books. Her work as a poet, publisher, activist and educator has taken her all over the United States and abroad. Her most recent book, The Layers of Our Seeing, is a collection of poetry, photographs and essays about peace done in collaboration with photographer Alan Pogue and Middle Eastern journalist, Muna Hamzeh.
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