Leaving the Cell ○ Barbara Ellmerer
The following notes document the process that led me from an original image (Fig. 1) taken from a medieval illustrated manuscript of Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae towards my personal contemporary re-interpretation of the same image (“Target Image No. 5”; Fig. 2) by the medium of scanning.
I believe, one image is always the result of another image. In my case, the picture is the first of five in the manuscript of Boethius’ Consolatio in Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. lat. fol. 25, 86v. All five images show Lady Philosophy (Philosophia) and Boethius in conversation. I had the opportunity to physically examine them in the Staatsbibliothek Berlin and evaluated them for their materiality, painting techniques and colouration. The size and weight of the manuscript was surprising and left a lasting impression. The haptic experience of the manuscript had a decisive influence on the further artistic process.
This particular manuscript was completed after the emergence of letter-press printing (1485). The illustrations within are attributed to a person called “SLY” or “Slyters”, of which little is known. One of the five pictures in the manuscript (127v) has bled severely, presumably the result of water damage. This bleeding suggests the use of egg tempera as painting medium, possibly also casein tempera, as the painting surface has a chalk-like texture. Common to all the illustrations is a strong luminosity of the colours, with a wide range between brightness and darkness.
Back to “my” picture, the first one in the manuscript (86v; Fig. 1), also the first to be “interviewed” in Courcelle’s monography on Boethius’ Consolatio (Courcelle 1967, 94), a leading secondary source on the reception of Boethius’ work in the Middle Ages.
The picture shows the captive Boethius miserably lying on a day bed in conversation with Lady Philosophy while in company of three further female characters, identified in the text as three muses.
The room in the illustration, a dungeon or prison, has a certain ambience. The dark bars on the windows keep us from an outside that looks particularly attractive for the relatively pronounced depth of field in the landscape (pale green and pale blue). The horizon is almost white and points into an infinite depth of space.
The interior is cosy. A high wooden ceiling offers protection, as does the wooden throne-like divan on which Boethius is resting. Remarkably, Philosophia has taken a seat on the divan at Boethius’ feet. The deep black colour of her veil, attached to a diadem, gives her head dignity and authority and a reference to space and depth. From underneath her dress, made from a baroque, brocade-like fabric in gold ochre, scarlet red and light blue colours, the contours of her body are clearly visible. It is striking that only Philosophia’s garment has ornamental decorations, in the form of a simplified circular sun sign, with which the brocade-like fabric is covered.
The ornament is particularly important to recognise and identify Lady Philosophy as herself as she appears a second time in the same illustration, in standing posture in a separate “insert” in the top right corner of the image. That insert shows her within an exterior setting, thus suggesting that she – in difference to Boethius – is free to leave the room. While Philosophia is instantly recognisable through her dress and hairstyle, her robe in the insert is additionally adorned with miniature text.
The garments of the other female figures (the muses) are kept in the respective colours old rose, in shades of light green, and in a cerulean blue, giving them a dressed-up look, which is additionally emphasised by their opulent headdresses. Two of the muses are again shown twice – the second time from behind as if expelled through a door in the background.
All four female characters have thin textile-like ribbons rising from their heads, serving as “speech bubbles” inscribed with Latin text. It should be noted that the banner emanating from Lady Philosophy is the only one to reach beyond the frame reserved for the picture.
Boethius lies on the divan, wrapped in thick fabrics (dark red coat and blue headgear, both fur-trimmed), bearded, long-haired, massive. He is depicted with an open gaze from blue eyes, actively listening as he has no “speech banner”. The green of his divan blanket surrounds and highlights him. It is picked up in a brightened version in Philosophia’s insert in the upper right and in a darkened version in the robes of two of the muses.
A round wooden table dominantly placed in the lower centre of the picture carries Boethius’ writings and his writing utensils. We may distinguish a large quill, small pen, case, inkwell, book and notes. Several of these tools are kept in highly intense black (probably soot). It is the same black as used in Philosophia’s veil.
The narrowness of the space, which is hinted at by the perspective and accentuated by an achromatic, gloomy colour scheme, contrasts with the liveliness of the banners and thus with the freedom of the speech and the thoughts they probably symbolise. Weight versus lightness, material discrepancies. Two worlds collide: stone, wood, masonry versus fabric, paper snakes, air, wind.
I decided that my reaction to the illustration would be based on the textile-covered body parts of the figures, focusing especially on the ornaments, the fabrics and their colouring.
I further decided to think of the banners as textiles, as they appear flowing and light as if made of fine fabric. They surround the respective scenario and are, in places, delicately coloured. Formally, they seem to flow out of the protagonists’ heads and thus, symbolically, from their minds: moving, melodious, comforting, radiating harmony.
I began with a series of tests on the materiality of the building: stone, mortar, wall. On the way to my studio, I searched for suitable stones that could stand for the first part of the picture’s message, the architectural, the rigid part. The structural component of Boethius’ dungeon is created by means of the grey mottled structures in the material. A large split-off limestone I found seemed well suited to be scanned.
This was followed by further scans with different image sections, each to be compared with the original illustration and checked for possible matches of their surface structures.
I determined a section in one of the scans to be enlarged.
Then followed assessments of other building materials of their suitability: loose pebbles, still dirty from the rain. I scanned them in high resolution without a cover - i.e. with light incidence.
Next scan: again 1200 dpi, with only one plastic foil. Unfortunately, I cannot avoid scratches in the scanner glass. I noted the damp earthy smell rising from the material. Did it smell the same a thousand years ago?
The same pebbles with even more plastic foils…
… and even more plastic foils.
I continued testing structured building boards, scanned in high resolution with distance from the glass. The surface texture is clearly visible, the colouring is nicely cloudy.
Nevertheless, the back of the building board seemed even more interesting: the ‘ornament’ is more delicate and the board shows traces of moisture, not unlike some older masonry.
I scanned another building panel without any distance to the glass. The front shows a more ornamental structure…
… back is scratched.
The gypsum and mortar contained in the building slabs came loose during the process and dust was everywhere in the studio. Again and again, I had to clean the keyboard. Dust in my face.
To represent abutting walls, I scan the last two front sides of the building panels, placed close together, with a blurred cut and missing "wall piece" at the top left. This picture comes quite close to my idea of an abstracted stone room, so I will continue to work with it.
To check if my decision is correct, I scan the same material again from the back. This variant is very appealing to me, because of its texture, but also for the vminimally shifting ertical “break”. Which variation to pursue?
Transitioning to the banner element: to me this represents is free speech, thinking, also more generally ephemerality. A silk “banner” was scanned with the lid of the apparatus open.
The second banner is “draped” using longer ribbons and with ends visible (this is similar to the original image). The lightness of the material became more pronounced, also caused by the bright bluish-white light of the apparatus.
New questions arose: Is a laying pattern similar to the original image necessary or is it too much of a good thing, undesirable because too obvious?
I added a red banner representing the muses, however, the composition of the image was now reversed as compared to the original.
So everything was flipped over to mimic the setup in the original image.
To increase the “airiness” of the banners, I then tried to move the ribbons during the scanning process. The result: the “architecture” is right, but unfortunately the tapes are flattened and appear too primitive in their white-red colour contrast.
Thus, I reduced the setup to one single white ribbon again, and searched for ways to scan it with lighter appearance.
Surprisingly, the desired “movement” including a suggested spatial background is present. Even a “horizon” has emerged. Also, the movement of the original image is there.
However, eventually I decided for my final variation "Target Image no. 5" because its colours correspond better to my idea of a realization of the source image: movement, instability, firmness, seduction, speed, ephemerality, in front of a stable, but fragile wall.
Barbara Ellmerer is a Swiss-Austrian painter and drawer, currently based in Zürich. She works in media such as oil painting, analogue and digital drawing, watercolour, printmaking and painting installation.
Recently she contributed to the research projects Iconography of Philosophy and Indirect Experiences.
illustration; philosophy; Boethius; text-image relations; textiles
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