The Monk and Me

Over the weekend a Twitter account I follow (@melibus1, which is a good follow if you like medieval things) sent around a picture of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ Child. Now, I love medieval art, I think it is amazing in all its creativity and strangeness and the wild variance in styles that you will see. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I felt that this one had some, ah, entertaining aspects. Here it is:


(Bodelian MS Canon Ital. 230, f. 53v., via @melibus1 on Twitter)

So I posted it on Facebook and some of my friends and I made some jokes about it, and about Nigel Farage (really) and there it probably would have lain, gathering digital dust, except of course I Got To Thinking.

I got to thinking about whoever the artist was who drew this picture, centuries ago. I don’t know the background of the manuscript it’s from (and am steadfastly resisting feeding my Procrastination Beast by researching it) but I assume it to be a monk or a nun. Something in the neighbourhood of 700 years ago, this person sat down and drew this little picture, and now here I am, looking at it in a way they wouldn’t have been able to imagine.

This is part of why I always get a little thrill looking at documents from the past. You are, in some way, making a connection to a real person who created that very thing before you, all those lifetimes ago. Medieval people very often did write (and create, in general) with a sense of ‘for the future’ in mind, so I often like to think those distant authors and artists would be pleased to know that people were still looking at what they created. But it’s hard to know exactly what they’d think, if you could explain the idea of someone looking at their work centuries later, and for purposes they would (probably) never have considered. Scholarly projects. Curiosity. Sheer entertainment.

In this case, would this monk (or nun!) be upset that we were laughing about it? I mean, the first reason I thought it was funny was that this is one of the very many examples of an artist who drew or painted a baby nursing that had, clearly, only a fairly vague idea of the female anatomy. (Which is why I think ‘monk’ is a much safer bet than ‘nun’, incidentally) So, why do this scene? Maybe they were told to do it by whoever ran the scriptorium and even though they didn’t really want to, they did their best with it anyway. Maybe (and I haven’t seen the rest of the page, so I don’t know) it’s appropriate to the written content, and so they gritted their teeth and did what they could. Or perhaps they really, truly, wanted to do this scene and made it as well as they were able.

Yes, by this point I was feeling slightly guilty about chuckling over the work of someone who has been dead for hundreds of years. But then I thought a little more and asked myself if someone made an offer to me, and said that in 700 years someone would be reading something that I’d written, but that they’d make some jokes about it, would I take it?

I’m pretty sure I would. In fact, I know I would. I love the idea of someone reading my stuff and getting a moment of entertainment or pleasure or amusement out of it, even if it’s not how I intended. (“To the SQ Mobile!” will be one of my favourite editor’s comments forever) That’s thinking about right now, but if I knew for sure that people would read something I wrote long after I was gone, that would be a thought I would enjoy very much, almost no matter what their reaction was. (Obviously, I’d prefer it if they didn’t think it was crap) That’s the closest I can imagine ever getting to living into that distant future.

So that Italian monk (pretty sure Italian, from how the manuscript is catalogued, but who knows?) did pretty well for themselves, really.

This also got me thinking about art (of whatever kind) that isn’t necessarily fantastic. And – quick sidebar here – I say that fully acknowledging the difficulty of writing, let alone drawing, with medieval tools, and not knowing the size of this picture (it is probably pretty small, judging from the text around it), and that therefore I absolutely could not do better. However, it did end up a little goofy.

I think there’s something deeply cool, in its own way, about people who have the desire in them to create art and go ahead and do it, even if what they produce is pretty flawed. (And I say that fully aware that there are or will be people who look at what I produce and would describe it as ‘pretty flawed’) But they just do it, because they want to create and that satisfies something in them and the rest of it be damned. I think that’s incredibly admirable and bold and awesome.

So by now, I’m really liking this monk, who set out to make this scene, did it as well as they could, and put it out there for an audience to look at. They did it probably not knowing exactly how big that audience would be, but even if this was a book intended to stay in the monastery, they would have known that their picture would at least be looked at by perhaps generations of their brothers (or sisters) and they put it out there anyway.

I also think this goes back to something I wrote a few entries back, Daniel Jose Older’s observation that artists need to take the pressure off themselves that everything has to be great and that everything they try has to work. You need to allow yourself the possibility of something that doesn’t work out so great, but the process of trying teaches you something or the attempt ticks off a box for you or even, maybe, you just end up with a final product that is ‘good’ rather than ‘world-shatteringly fantastic’ and you know, that’s pretty rad.

Perhaps this monk just tried drawing the BVM nursing her baby, it didn’t come out exactly great, but he figured out how to do it better on the next page. And, in the end, in sitting there in that distant, long-ago scriptorium, that person succeeded in creating a thing that we looked at on the weekend and that brought a few moments of pleasure into our lives. I like to think that would have pleased them.

Although I doubt I will ever know what the real story was behind the creation of that little picture, I think that I will be a better artist if I can remember to channel a little of the spirit of that medieval person.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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