The Faces of Plimpton MS 034
Fifteen of the decorated initials in Plimpton MS 034 "speak" through the images of human faces. Although the next two pages divide the human faces into religious and laypeople, it is important to keep in mind that these divisions are based on my interpretation of the clothing and body hair that I see in the images, rather than on any explicit indications in the texts. With the exception of the image of St. Clare on folio 18r, I do not make any claims that these faces were meant to represent real people from the Brussels convent of St. Clare and the surrounding area. Indeed, many of the faces are connected to animalistic or plant-like bodies, and some have no bodies at all. However, this exhibit aims to take the letters seriously as images that may have been understood by medieval readers to be alive and speaking. To quote Laura Kendrick,
“We ‘classicize’ medieval writing in our minds (and try to render it as transparent as print) when we dismiss the figural aspects of the early medieval Christian letter as ‘pure decoration.’ When we take the view that such aspects are ‘only the outer shape of a letter of the alphabet,’ and that they do not ‘stand directly for the thing,’ as in hieroglyphic writing, we try to censor all but the literal sense of the text; we censor the figures that may be intended to reveal the true import of or to authorize and empower the Christian letter.”
Laura Kendrick, Animating the Letter: The Figurative Embodiment of Writing from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 63-64.