Unexpected meetings #2: Magic Carpets

The second in a new series of blog posts that draws connections between objects in the Ashmolean Museum’s Imagining the Divine exhibition. Katherine Cross examines three intricate carpet pages from holy manuscripts: from a Gospel, a Quran, and a Torah.

Magic carpets: illuminating holy books and Imagining the Divine

The eighth-century St Chad Gospels, now owned by Lichfield Cathedral, mark the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel with their sole surviving ‘carpet page’.

In the highly ornate opening words which face the carpet page, the Gospel text becomes decorative, beauty outdoing clarity of reading. We are forced to slow down and puzzle out each letter – some of which take rune-like forms – before piecing together the meaning of the text: Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordina[re]…. Likewise, the carpet page frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel, a full page of ornamental designs, invites detailed examination. By allowing our eyes carefully to follow the interlacing bodies we connect legs and wings, beaks and necks, snouts and ears – the sinuous forms of fantastical birds and dog-like beasts covering the surface of the page. They contort themselves within and around the distinct angular form of a cross, the central symbol of Christianity.

Steffi St Chad detail
Detail of the St Chad Gospels, mid-8th century, Lichfield Cathedral. Photo: S. Lenk.

Such luxurious manuscripts encouraged early medieval viewers of the Gospels to engage in the practice of ruminatio – careful consideration of the forms and meanings of text and ornament alike. Modern viewers may observe the manuscript’s intricacies in even greater detail than their medieval predecessors, thanks to Bill Endres’s exceptional digitalisation: http://lichfield.ou.edu

The immediate inspirations for the artist of the St Chad Gospels may have been other early medieval sacred volumes including the Lindisfarne Gospels (which you can ruminate on here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=cotton_ms_nero_d_iv), as well as the jewellery and metalwork on display nearby.

But the term ‘Carpet Pages’ evokes other possible sources. It has been suggested that the idea for blocks filled with ornamental designs in this manner derived from Roman floor mosaics, or perhaps from Egyptian textiles and rugs. Certainly, we encounter similar approaches to holy books in the same period, much further east.

Also displayed in Imagining the Divine, in the same room as the St Chad Gospels, is a leaf from a ninth-century Quran, which similarly presents a block of dense and detailed ornament, filling the same space reserved on other pages for the holy text. Here, the designs are primarily geometric and the whole observes the golden ratio. The use of gold illuminates the decorative patterns as it does the Quranic verses, highlighting their beauty and complexity. Different patterns occupy subdivided panels within the frame, resembling those panels forming the initial Q in the St Chad Gospels. And a beautiful roundel, filled with leaf designs, protrudes beyond the bounds of the frame, much as do geometric designs on the Christian book’s carpet page.

p1130954.jpg
Leaf from a Quran, c. 9th century, Sarikhani Collection I.MS.1026, Photo: S. Lenk.

A Jewish artist living in the Islamic world took up this same approach when producing the tenth-century Torah on display earlier in the exhibition: preceding the Book of Exodus are two lavish carpet pages, golden frames of concentric rectangles filled with flowers and creepers. And again, a delicately ornamented roundel protrudes from the border. This manuscript was produced by and for Karaite Jews living in Islamic Palestine or Egypt, and the Hebrew text is written in Arabic script. You can focus on its intricate details here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Or_2540

Karaite exodus
The Karaite Book of Exodus, 10th century, British Library OR.2450. Photo: K. Cross.

These manuscripts are connected through close models in the early middle ages, or by distant ancestors in late antiquity. But what I find even more fascinating is how they testify to similar responses to holy texts among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The creators of these books beautified their texts with sumptuous, highly skilled ornamental designs, rather than explicatory illustration. They thus added to the words’ meanings by evoking ways of looking, drawing the viewer in to the contemplation of sacred scripture.

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