Blog post № 4: Images

By and large, this week’s readings are difficult to connect to the Dragon Prayer Book, because they deal so closely with the technologies of type and mechanical image reproduction. This manuscript book, of course, does not use any of the techniques of illustration or reproduction Philip Gaskell discusses in A New Introduction to Bibliography, nor does it feature anything which can be compared with the printer’s devices Erika Boeckeler discusses in her paper, for example.

The illustrative or decorative elements of the Dragon Prayer Book are exclusively textual or associated with letters. The most prominent, of course, is the initial R on folio 1, recto, from derives the book’s nickname:


Following the classification set out in Albert Derolez’s The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, we should consider this initial an anomalous form of flourished initial rather than an historiated initial, as it does not form a frame for an illustration connected to the text or which tells a story (historia). Indeed, except for its size (seven lines) and the presence of the dragon rampant on the vertical and the vegetal illustrations on on the letter’s bowl and “leg,” this initial does not differ radically from the book’s other flourished initials.

Following the norm for mediæval books, as Derolez describes it, the Dragon Prayer Book employs a three-level hierarchy of initials: three-line flourished, two-line plain, and one-line plain; the flourished intials are blue with red flourishes, while the plain initials are single-color, alternating red and blue. All three levels of initial are visible on folio 19, recto:


Here we have a three-line flourished D beginning on line 5 (“Domine labia mea aperies”), a two-line plain U beginning on line 12 (“Uenite exultemus domino”), a plain red D on line 9, and a plain blue R on line 11. It is noteworthy that, as is the norm in such books, the initials are written using a different script than the body text. The initial D on this page can be compared with a “normal” capital D on line 9 (“Domine”), and the initial U can similarly be compared with the V on line 12 (spelling the same word, “Venite”). (Note that in the script used for the initals, no distinction is made between the word-initial v form and the u form as it is in the gothic script used for the body text.) The initials also appear to have been formed with a brush rather than the pen used for the body text.

Folio 163, verso, shows further examples of the Dragon Prayer Book’s initials, which also illustrate the unique letter forms:


As we see here, the initials employ a mix of letter-forms from various ancient and mediæval scripts. The red M on line 11 is similar only to the uncial form of the letter, while the blue N on line 13 is, on the contrary, Carolignian in shape. The flourished U has a form common to uncial and Carolingian minuscule but quite different from gothic textualis. The blue Q on line 9, for its part, shows a form which is derived from that of a classical capital, quite distinct from that of uncial, Carolingian minuscule, or gothic textualis.

This page also provides an example of the book’s other form of quasi-illustration – musical notation. Scattered throughout the book are examples like this, of chant transcribed using square neumes and a four-line staff.

Before leaving the topic of illustration and ornamentation entirely, we might consider two other pieces from this week’s reading. In his “Illuminated Printing,” Joseph Viscomi discusses William Blake’s technique for producing his famous illustrated books. In most forms of printing, text and illustration are produced in quite discrete processes: a compositor produces a page of type from a manuscript provided, ultimately, by an author; he may introduce into the page composition a woodcut (or other relief) produced by another artisan, or an engraving or etching printed by an entirely different (intaglio) process might be tipped in to the finished book. Blake’s process of relief etching, however, produced plates which contained both his illustrations and his (handwritten) text; in a sense the resulting books might be considered mechanically-reproduced manuscripts more than printed works per se, even if we disregard the unique hand-coloring applied to individual copies. This is in many ways a throwback to the manuscript tradition, though even there the illumination of deluxe editions was the work of specialists quite distinct from the scribes who wrote out the text – and even in the case of the sparsely-illuminated Dragon Prayer Book, initials appear to be brush- rather than pen-work.

Juliet Fleming’s “How to Look at a Printed Flower” also plumbs some of the brackish waters where type and illustration mix. Her subject is the “flowers” printers used to ornament Early Modern books. She speculates on the purpose these flowers served – to make the printed book less alien to a reader accustomed to manuscript works, for example, or to rest the eye, or simply for beautification. There is, perhaps, no satisfactory answer to this question, nor may there ever be, absent documentary evidence of printers’ intention in using them. However, the flowers themselves are intriguing things, neither exactly part of a page of type nor exactly separate from it. They were cast as individual movable elements much like the sorts in a font, and they were composed to form borders or linear ornaments in a manner analogous to the composition of a line of type. In this way, they are quite analogous to the decorative flourishes used in mediæval manuscript codices like the Dragon Prayer Book. An example can be found at the top of folio 18, recto, a flourish associated with the capital S in “Sit laus patri cum filio”:


This flourish is applied using the same brush and the same ink used for the S, and it is impossible to say whether it should be considered an ornamentation of the letter or a separate design element.

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