Art: Medieval Herbals

Sloane 1975 manuscript, f31v, British Library

Lately I’ve been indulging my love of botanical art by simply looking at examples of its many manifestations.  With such a massive topic, all I can really do is touch down at a few points on its vast extent.  In this series of posts, I’ve selected four sites, beginning with Medieval herbals.  The conventional view is that there isn’t much to see here:  just repeated copying of rather crude representations that are often difficult to identify.  But as with much else in history, reexamination leads to new viewpoints.  Yes, there are manuscripts like Sloane 1975 at the British Library, a medical text richly embellished with gold leaf and with plants that are extremely stylized.  Still it’s a treasure worth examining to see how they are stylized:  the emphasis is on symmetry with equal numbers of branches or flowers or leaves on each side of a central stem and with elements spread apart so they don’t overlap and are clearly visible.  If the tuber is the portion of the plant that is of medicinal interest then it is often presented as overly large to emphasize its worth.

The text accompanying these striking images is ancient, though hardly a direct copy.  Manuscripts were added to or streamlined and reordered to make them more accessible to new generations of medical practitioners.  Many are in Latin, though names may also be given in Greek, or as in an English herbal from 1070-1100, in Latin and Old English.  This is MS Ashmole 1431 in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.  It’s a version of an herbal written in the fourth century A.D. by someone named Pseudo-Apuleius.  Since it was one of the few texts on medicinal plants available in Latin, it was often copied.  There is a later manuscript in the British Library Egerton MS 747 that was produced in the late 13th century probably in Salerno or Naples and presents many plants quite realistically.   At that time, southern Italy provided some of the most advanced medical education, and this manuscript reveals the first stirrings of the close observation that would be the hallmark of early modern medicine and botany. 

However, there are much earlier manuscripts that have amazingly naturalistic representations of plants, though these also contain many images of lesser quality.  The best known is the Anicia Juliana Codex created in 512 AD and now in the Austrian National Library, created.  It has marked similarities to two other manuscripts known by their present locations, the Naples Codex from the late 6th or early 7th century in the National Library, Naples and the mid-10th century New York Codex at the Morgan Library.  All three are written in Greek and are based on the first-century work of materia medica by the Greek physician Dioscorides.  It wasn’t available in Latin until the 12th century, but was the basis for a great deal of medieval writings on medicines into the early modern era. 

Much research has been done on these codices, especially on the Juliana, since some see it as the model for the two later works.  Several years ago, researchers at Purdue University created a database for the three herbals, so that their similarities and differences could be studied more easily (Janick et al., 2013).  As they note, each of the three presents about 400 illustrations; of these, 282 are common to all.  The website is a great resource for diving into three of the most notable early herbals either from a botanical or an art historical viewpoint, though I am not sure that these can be separated.  Just studying the differences and similarities between any two images is an exploration of how different artists present what they see, even when one is copying the other. 

A recent analysis of all three manuscripts was published by Joshua Thomas (2019) who emphasizes the sources for the images.  Many of the illustrations are so realistic that they can be identified to species, something not possible with many other manuscript illustrations.  Thomas presents a number of arguments others have made about the relationship among the three works.  First is the archetype theory, that the Vienna codex, as the oldest, was model for the other two.  While there are many species common to all three books, even in these cases, the images are not exact copies.  This has led some to see them as related to a common source that has been lost, definitely a possibility.  However, Thomas questions this view because each presents plants in different formats.  One will take up an entire page with an image, another will pair plants together, and a third will only use half or less of the page and fill the rest with text.  It seems to him that if they were all using the same source, there would be more uniformity.

Thomas then builds a case for the models being from the classical period, several hundred years before the Vienna Codex, because he doesn’t see plant images from the 4th and 5th century with the naturalism found in these manuscripts.  Instead he finds similarities with, for example, the plants depicted in the murals in the Empress Livia’s garden room in Rome and others in Pompeii (Ciarallo, 2001).  This leaves him with the question of how they ended up in later works.  He doesn’t consider the papyrus manuscripts of that time as likely sources since papyrus doesn’t allow for the fine detail seen in the codices.  He posits instead that the models were painted on whitened wooden boards called pinakes that artists were known to use.  These would have been portable, explaining how the images could have traveled.  I’m hardly in a position to judge the likelihood of this hypothesis, but it does suggest how closely these ancient botanical jewels are being examined.

References

Ciarallo, A. (2001). Gardens of Pompeii. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Janick, J., Whipkey, A. L., & Stolarczyk, J. (2013). Synteny of images in three lilustrated Dioscoridean herbals: Juliana Anicia Codex, Codex Neapolitanus, and Morgan 652. Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca, 41(2), 333–339.

Thomas, J. J. (2019). The iIllustrated Dioskourides codices and the transmission of images during antiquity. The Journal of Roman Studies, 109, 241–273. https://doi.org/10.1017/S007543581900090X

One thought on “Art: Medieval Herbals

  1. Pingback: Art: Surrealism and Specimens | Herbarium World

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