The Gerona Beatus

I was recently in Girona carrying out research on a biography I am working on about the lives of three sisters who lived in the 11th century: Almodis de La Marche, Raingarde de La Marche and Lucia de La Marche. More on the sisters and the biography in a later post. In this post, I wanted to write about an extraordinary 10th century book that I saw in Girona Cathedral. The book is a copy of the Commentary on the Apocalypse of St John written by the Spanish monk, Beatus of Liébana, in 776. 

The Girona version of Beatus’s Commentary is one of 29 surviving copies of the text and was completed in July 975. There are at least three extraordinary aspects to the Girona Beatus: the quality of its illustrations, which are executed in the Mozarabic style; that most of those illustrations were painted by a woman called En,[1]who was probably a nun; and that, in the book, she left her name in a colophon, identifying herself as the principle artist, and a portrait of herself and her collaborator, a monk named Emeterius. 

En and Emeterius lived and worked at San Salvador de Tábara monastery, which was a mixed community of nuns and monks with a superb scriptorium that produced a number of significant illuminated manuscripts. A little later in the medieval period monasteries for men and convents for women became strictly separated, but in the early medieval period there were a number of such mixed religious communities.

The Mozarabs were Iberian Christians living in Al-Andalus, the Muslim-conquered territories of Spain in the 8th to the 11th centuries. The Mozarabic style in art and architecture blended elements of Islamic art and decorative traditions using geometry, rich colours, ornamented grounds, and stylized figures.

In an article on the Beatus manuscripts, Therese Martin and John Williams have argued that there was a large group of female scribes and illuminators across Europe, although most of them did not leave their names on their work. They cite the 12th century German nun Guda as another example of a female medieval artist who left her self-portrait in a book, which in her case, was the Frankfurt Homilary, where she wrote ‘Guda, a sinner, wrote and painted this book’.[2]

Martin and Williams have asserted that presumptions have been made about power in the Middle Ages and about men’s versus women’s place, agency, and authority, which have led to the forgetting of the actual roles of early medieval women.[3]This argument is true too in the case of the biography I am writing on the three La Marche sisters. I am seeking to recover the memory of the roles of medieval women that have been overlooked and smothered beneath false assumptions, and seeking to restore the memory of women to the stories we choose to tell about the Middle Ages.

[1]Some sources give her name as Ende but in ‘Women’s Spaces—Real and Imagined—in the Illustrated Beatus Commentaries’, Arenal, 25:2, July-Dec 2018, 357-396, Therese Martin and John Williams have argued that this is a misreading of the colophon, which they translate as ‘En, painter and helper of God’.

[2]Martin & Williams (2018).

[3]Martin & Williams (2018).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s