Notes on the Rothschild Canticles
Tiffany K. Chan ‘15
Wellesley College Department of Art History
A dazzling yet disorienting text, the Rothschild Canticles represent an extraordinary example of mysticism in Medieval ecclesiastical art. A miniature manuscript, measuring at 118x84 mm, the Rothschild Canticles are richly illuminated and illustrated. Historian Barbara Newman tentatively ascribes the manuscript to “the former diocese of Thérouanne”, in what is now the north of present-day France. While the Canticles are believed to have been produced in 1300, created at a time of tremendous social and political turbulence. While a shield with three hares and the motto “Tunc Satiabor” remain on folio 1, the history of the text prior to 1875 is largely unknown. There is limited information regarding the patronage or production of the manuscript before it entered the ownership of the illustrious Rothschild family.
The first issue to consider is that of patronage-who was the incredible book meant for? Its small size indicates that the book was likely meant to be carried and its folios were meant for the eyes of the patron alone, rather than to be put on display in a church. But whose eyes would it capture? Although many Medieval manuscripts were produced for consumption by male nobility, Harvard professor Jeffrey Hamburger suggests that it was perhaps created for a nun or noblewoman due to the text’s “spiritual optimism, complete lack of interest in the active life”. A work of mystagogy, the Rothschild Canticles contain mentions of the ‘mystical union’ alongside ruminations of the Trinity and Virgin Mary. There are also many depictions of mythical creatures, such as unicorns, in both the marginalia and in full folios.
There is an artistic tension between trying to portray the worship of Christ as a universal experience while it is at the same time a deeply personal one. This manifests itself heavily in the depiction of gender in the Rothschild Canticles. In several folios, the worshippers of Christ are presented as androgynous figures. They lack beards and are portrayed with long flowing hair but it is highly unlikely that the viewer is meant to see them as solely female given the strongly heterosexual context. Dominant throughout the illustrations in the text is the motif of the sponsa, or the representation of the Church as the bride of Christ. By representing the Church and its followers to the virginal bride of Christ, the illustrator uses the biological inequity of the sexes to represent and underscore the spiritual divide between Christ and his followers.
The text of the Canticles itself is wholly unusual. Interspersed throughout various sections of the text are multiple copying errors; while this revelation does not seem to be particularly enlightening, we must remember that this manuscript was the product of several highly skilled craftsmen at the expense of the patron. Newman suggests that the placement of these copyediting errors suggests multiple scribes. Furthermore, the text has been abridged and edited to fit the margin in some instances beyond comprehension, suggesting that perhaps the scribe themselves were unfamiliar with the text. Certain verses are in an illogical order or are omitted all together. The very fact that such errors exist strongly imply that the process of compiling the text went amiss.
The Rothschild Canticles combines art, mysticism and Latin religious worship in a captivating, if somewhat confusing, way.
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Bromberg, Sarah. "Gendered and Ungendered Readings of the Rothschild Canticles." Problematizing Gendered Readings in the Rothschild Canticles. Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art, n.d. Web. 21 July 2015.
Hamburger, Jeffrey F. The Rothschild Canticles: Art and Mysticism in Flanders and the Rhineland circa 1300. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. Print.
Newman, Barbara. "Contemplating the Trinity: Text, Image, and the Origins of the Rothschild Canticles." Gesta 52.2 (2013): 133-59. Web.