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    Christopher T. Richards
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    Christopher T. Richards

    Picturing Desire and Desiring Pictures: Ovide moralisé and the Vernacular Manuscript Tradition

    In Guillaume de Machaut’s pseudo-autobiographical Livre dou Voir dit (Book of the True Poem), a painting appears to the poet in a dream. Before falling asleep, he had imprisoned this ymage en une page (image on a page, or “miniature”), as the 14th-century poem describes her, as punishment for the presumed disloyalty of Toute-Bele, the beloved woman she depicts. The ymage berates Guillaume and argues for her release. She succeeds by consulting a manuscript of Ovide moralisé (Ovid Moralized), a French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with extensive allegories, and offering novel reinterpretations of its myths. In the world of Voir dit, a miniature reads a poem in order to radically alter the course of love and narrative, forcing a writer to understand poetry as she sees it. Guillaume’s text presents the miniature as a powerful agent of disruption and transformation who can upend meaning and rewrite poetry from her own point of view. Specifically, she reworks the myth of Apollo and Coronis by incorporating thematic elements and rhymes from the tale of Pygmalion. According to the miniature, after Apollo kills Coronis for her disloyalty, he applies a magical balm to her corpse which transforms her into a beautiful image, adored in the temple of Venus—a conclusion absent from Ovide moralisé. Self-servingly, the image suggests that the poet abandon his love affair with Toute-Bele, whom she depicts, and maintain one with her, a depiction, which is precisely the course the poet takes upon waking from his dream. Not only has a miniature reread and reinterpreted a poem, but she has forcefully made herself poetry and love’s object, wrenching depiction (living woman) from depicted (painted miniature), and sign from referent, in the process.

    Christopher T. Richards examines a miniature of Pan under a microscope

    It is no accident that the disruptive miniature consults Ovide moralisé in order to argue with the poet, for the surviving copies of the poem are among the most densely illuminated manuscripts of French poetry ever produced. Moreover, the word/image dynamics that characterize these manuscripts precisely correspond to the interpretive methods and aims of Machaut’s meddlesome miniature. My dissertation examines the manuscripts of Ovide moralisé to suggest that the commercial illuminators in Paris who painted them not only read the poem but discovered in it strategies to theorize, celebrate, and ultimately justify their craft as artists. Much as Machaut’s miniature adapted Ovide moralisé for self-serving and amorous ends, artists highlighted the poem’s most image-centric stories, transforming what is a lengthy, multifocal work into montages of tapestries, sculptures, metalwork, and manuscripts. Further, by illustrating the desire for pictures specifically, as in the famous myth of Pygmalion, commercial illuminators argued for the importance and appeal of images in vernacular books. 

    This argument was necessary in the context of late medieval book culture. Prior to the 14th century, vernacular books were sparsely illustrated relative to their Latin counterparts. Manuscript libraries bear witness to the medium’s dramatic transformation in the second quarter of the 14th century, the date of Ovide moralisé’s earliest manuscript. Containing over 450 miniatures and representing mythological scenes never before visualized, it shattered the representational norms of French poetry. It was only after these widely diffused illuminated versions appeared that more famous vernacular manuscripts, such as Romance of the Rose, became consistently and densely illuminated. The abrupt metamorphosis of the medium invites an investigation into the purpose of images in poetic manuscripts and how they were understood by their 14th-century makers and viewers. The manuscripts themselves work through these very questions in both their texts and images.

    Miniature of Pan, from Ovide moralisé, 1380s, ink and colors on parchment, Bibliothèque municipale, Geneva, MS français 176, fol. 355v

    Ovide moralisé’s miniatures theorize themselves as metamorphoses, a transformation of medium into image that transforms poetry, too. By reading the text, painters learned that their miniatures could offer what the poet calls mutacions des fables. The poet uses this ambiguous French phrase to characterize both Ovid’s subject (“tales of transformations”) and his own project to translate and allegorize Metamorphoses (“transformations of tales”). Miniatures offer further mutacions of Ovide moralisé and, in particular, its many accounts of art as metamorphosis. Thus, critically, while art and literary historians usually understand miniatures as mimetic, these miniatures frequently fail to meet iconographic expectation and were painted in a lively style, evocative of change and movement, known among specialists as “the vernacular style.” These miniatures fail, so some critics say, to reflect textual content appropriately and to reflect the world naturalistically. Both iconographic and stylistic failures are taken as proof that commercial bookmakers worked quickly—painting slapdash, sloppy, even crude miniatures—as mechanical and unthinking craftspeople, not “artists” in the modern sense. My dissertation shows, however, that the value critics place on mimesis is anachronistic and does not take seriously the transformative nature of images described in poems like Ovide moralisé and Voir dit, among others. Close examination of these manuscripts reveals bold artists referring to poetry to stake out a new, prominent place on the vernacular mise-en-page. The vernacular manuscript corpus represents a sustained critical reflection on images and artists at the end of the Middle Ages, which my dissertation seeks to excavate.

    New York University
    Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2021–2022

    Christopher T. Richards was recently inducted as a Junior Fellow into the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School, University of Virginia, where he will pursue research into queer histories of the book. He will travel to France this coming academic year to complete his dissertation as a Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust Fellow. He plans to defend his dissertation in spring 2023.

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