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One of the great treasures of the Old Library is a manuscript of Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” translated into medieval French (Trinity Hall Cambridge MS.12). This manuscript is illustrated throughout in a naive and lively style with images relating Boethius’ story.

These charming images provide a fascinating insight into the medieval mind and a unique view of the medieval world. Interspersed throughout the story are numerous full page illustrations of scenes from the Holy Scriptures and of the Chrisitan saints, including a number of images which tell the story of Christ’s Passion.

Christ's entry into Jerusalem (MS.12 14v)

Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (MS.12, f. 14v). Image (c) Trinity Hall Cambridge

Although these holy images seem to have nothing to do with the “Consolation of Philosophy” there is in fact a strong connection. The medieval French scholar Professor Sylvia Huot has pointed out that earthly suffering is the theme of most of the holy images in the manuscript. Depictions of the suffering of Christ and the ordeals of the saints were included in order to reinforce the central theme of Boethius’s work.

Boethius was a senior government official who in 524AD, having offended the king, Theodoric the Great, was stripped of his wealth and offices, thrown into prison and condemned to death. Whilst awaiting execution he was visited in a dream by Lady Philosophy who dictated to him a treatise on the futility of pursuing worldly wealth and power.

The resurection

The resurection (MS. 12, f. 34v). Image (c) Trinity Hall Cambridge

The central thesis of the Consolation of Philosophy is the assertion that lasting happiness is only to be found in a mind that is centred and philosophically recollected. The inclusion of images from the Scriptures in the Trinity Hall manuscript is in keeping with the medieval Christian interpretation of Boethius. These images of Christ and the saints are used to reinforce Boethius’s message of how to endure (and triumph over) the suffering of this world.

Christ at the right hand of God. Christ is depicted on the cross and npointing to the wound in his side (MS.12 f. 98v)

Christ at the right hand of God. Christ is depicted on the cross and is pointing to the wound in his side (MS.12 f. 98v). Image (c) Trinity Hall Cambridge

Boethius’s treatise was tremendously popular in medieval times and is still in print today. It was translated into many languages including into English by King Alfred the Great, Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I amongst others.

References

The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius. (Penguin Books, 1999)

“The Chastelaine de Vergi at the crossroads of courtly, moral and devotional literature” by Sylvia Huot. Published in Philologies old and new, edited by J. Tasker Grimbert and C. J. Chase (Princeton, 2001)

Wikipedia for Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy.

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