I am now in my final term of my final year of my undergraduate degree, and after 3 years of researching and writing essays to a set formula, I decided to take a module that was a bit different, and a bit more of a challenge. Image Vision Dream taught by Dr. Sarah James looks at medieval dream visions and visual theory to understand medieval culture of images. For my assignments I am having to pick up a paintbrush for the first time in 7 years and try my hand at not just talking about art, but doing art.
For my first assignment I investigated the problems of illustrating a transcendental text, focusing on the medieval dream vision Pearl.
The fourteenth century poem Pearl is one of the most evocative Middle English dream visions, distinct in its portrayal of human grief and vivid in its imagery. The poem appears in one extant manuscript, the Cotton Nero A.x. as the first text of four works by the same author, known as the Gawain-poet. The manuscript begins with four full page illustrations of Pearl that act in a way to narrate the poem. The poem, with its ornate metrical style and imagery saturated with jewels, participates in the Gothic art culture that was prevalent in the fourteenth century. The visual landscapes of Pearl also have associations with the vibrant paradisal imagery of the secular dream visions, such as with the fertile flowers and songful birds reminiscent of Le Roman de la Rose.
Illustrations to Le Roman de la Rose as in British Library MS Harley 4425, Netherlands c.1490-1500
Likewise, the religious elements of the poem, particularly that of the New Jerusalem, are part of a rich tradition; taking images directly from the Book of Revelation and eluding to the illuminations of the Apocalypse manuscripts which were popular expensive luxury items.
Thus it can be seen that Pearl is an active participant in traditions of literature which have a rich visual counterpart, and it is in this visual counterpart of the text where Pearl can be seen to suffer. The illustrations are ‘crudely drawn and often careless of detail’ [J.J. Anderson]
The pictures most certainly lack the sumptuous quality found in the Gothic objects of art to which the visual imagery of the text has been compared; the original artist fails to convey the complex symbolism of the dream narrative , this can be seen in the inharmonious illustrations of the original manuscript, which, although attempt to depict the narrative of Pearl in an iconographical scheme, do so in a way which removes the complexity, the splendour and the poignant beauty of the poem through its visual over-simplification. Although it could be argued that the simple illustrations convey the incomprehensibility of the vision, that which is indescribable verbally is still successfully described in overwhelming detail by the poet.
My intention then was to create an enriched illustration which addressed the problems of illustrating a transcendental text by applying the conventions of visual narratives and implementing visual theory to create an illustration that better interacts with its sumptuous textual counterpart. I have tried to capture the abstract emotions of grief and longing as well as the Gothic sensibility for precious and beautiful objects. Mostly I have tried to illustrate the vivid descriptions given in the poem which give it its poignancy by creating a picture that is of an epic landscape yet simultaneously intensely involved in the personal experience of the dreamer.
That was my first attempt at any artistic representation and it seemed to pay off, I never claimed to be an artist but I was happy with my assignment. It was fun and exciting to try something different. I am not putting down my paintbrush either, but am going to continue my hand at medieval art for my final project, where I will be making a Psalter and exploring the conventions of marginalia in fourteenth century Psalters produced in East Anglia c. 1300.