Medieval Manuscript Painting

The Middle Age marked the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity around Europe. The period was referred to as the Dark Ages as scholars believed that Latin literature lacked quality. It was not only literature that was seen to scarcity of quality, but also culture and art in general. The Medieval period marked a lack of advancement in most parts of Europe hence being characterized as the Dark Ages. In this period artists abandoned cultural achievement and focused more on their creativity and intellectual inquiry. Stephen Greenblatt advanced the argument that religious culture was constrained to four aspects that included curiosity, desire, individuality, and sustained attention to the material world. The Ebbo Gospels display the nature of originality that Greenblatt describes. In my estimation, I agree with the view of medieval culture as bound to tradition with less interest on the natural world. The Ebbo Gospels’ St. John displays a sense of curiosity, desire, individuality, and sustained attention to the material world.

The Ebbo Gospels are famous for their distinctive styles which are in contrast to the contemporary Carolingian gospels. They emanated from Ebbo the archbishop of Rheims, which was best known for its manuscript production. The St. John’s manuscript is a luxurious object that is written using golden ink and it is placed on purple-dyed vellum. The author of St. John portrait displays energetic and expressionistic features that were important in the coming up of the painting. Further, the artist was attentive in highlighting and the use of shadow that enabled him to create easily three-dimensional forms. However, instead of doing so by using smooth modeling, the artist used textured modeling which was important in creating the effect of movement that is evident from the picture.

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Curiosity is the urge that people have to learn in different aspects of life, and in St. John this aspect is present throughout the artwork. The image not only brings out the curiosity of artist, but also arouses that of the viewers. The curiosity of the artist is brought out through the way in which he or she has organized the elements in their work. The artist portrays John to be an elderly person given the long beard, and the color of their air. The viewers’ curiosity is portrayed in several ways. Firstly, as a viewer, one wonders why John is looking up to the bird. It comes out as if John was waiting for a message from the bird so as to scribble it down in his canvas. John is also curios as seen in the artwork as he wants to learn what the bird has to say. The artwork leaves a viewer to wonder whether the bird and John were conversing. In general, the aspect of curiosity in medieval art advanced by Greenblatt, is present in the Ebbo Gospel St. John.

At the same time, there is also desire in the Ebbo Gospel’s St. John. The desire refers to the urge to want something. In St. John, the artist brings out this desire for the viewer to find out. The viewer gets the desire to see John writing down the word that he has been listening from the bird. The artist creates this impression to the viewers, since John is holding his pen ready to note down what the bird has to say to him. According to Nees, John sits in a transfixed position which appears from the hills. This hills from where the bird emerges seems to be from heaven. The viewer gets the desire that maybe beyond the hills it could have been heaven and this is what is implied in the scriptures. In this way, the aspect of desire as noted by Greenblatt is brightly exhibited in the described artwork.

Apart from curiosity and desire, St. John also brings out a sense on individuality and disconnection from the natural world. The skills of the artist of St. John displayed in the painting differentiate him from other artists of this period. The artist expresses their individuality by presenting their own interpretation of how John was inspired to author of the book. The artist’s individuality is seen in the way in which he or she portrays the notion that John received the message from the bird. Other artists who focused on the portraying other parts of Ebbo Gospels, such as St. Mathews, also had their unique way of bringing out their individuality. The manuscripts are, therefore, different from the other forms of media because of the spaces they provide for their readers to record their image and texts. Illuminated manuscripts are the ones that are among the oldest in existence. Not only are the manuscript books functional, but they are also decorative in nature.

In conclusion, the Middle Ages period cannot be said to be the one whereby Christianity replaced culture and traditions because with it came many other things. The use of illuminated manuscripts and the establishment of universities and colleges in this period enabled the advancement of knowledge through learning. St. John presents the aspects of curiosity, desire, and individuality in a unique way that also brings out the elements associated with The Ebbo Gospels.



Nees, Lawrence. Early medieval art. Oxford History of Art, 2002.

McKitterick, Rosamond. “The pleasures of the past: history and identity in the early Middle Ages.” Early Medieval Europe 22, no. 4 (2014): 388-405.