Bring Me The Red Pages

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of
This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

One of the cable channels is showing the whole run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order, and so we're dipping in from time to time. I'm glad to report that it holds up quite well, as sitcoms go. At a certain juncture in tonight's episode, Murray ripped the breast pocket off Ted Baxter's jacket, and I turned to my wife and said, "Watch. Later he pulls off all three." Sho nuff, it came to pass as I had said.

Now, normally I wouldn't spoil in that way, but we had been discussing just how strange memory is, and this incident presented a good example. I haven't seen that episode since it first ran in 1972. It was not deeply meaningful to me then. There was no particular reason that this detail should have lodged itself in my cortex. But there it was. Something about the visual of Eventual Captain Stubing's sartorial assault was odd enough to stick with me involuntarily, for no particular reason, all these years… alongside who knows how much other pop-cultural clutter and high-minded ephemera.

Brains are strange. Minds are mysterious. Strangely hangs the Loop that wears the Moebius strip. But here's the lesson of the moment: not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but it's also an agent of Mnemosyne. And Mnemosyne likes codices. (And polkas, waltzes, and schottisches.)

I was thinking about Lady Mnemosyne on the way home from Chipotle with the kid this evening, when suddenly the passenger in the next car up jettisoned a cigarette butt. I mumbled to the kid (now home from college for the summer) that if we had been at a stoplight, I might've been tempted to get out, retrieve the butt, fling it into her open window, and explain with a Wodehousian demeanor that it appeared as if she had dropped something. He mumbled back that he'd set it on fire first, which didn't make much sense and seemed a tad violent but nicely captured the spirit of repugnance I was trying to convey and inculcate.

Litter is a pet peeve of mine, and littering from cars is the one and only thing that ever tips me toward road rage. "Haven't these people seen the cartoon owl?" I screech. "Didn't they see the tear on that fake Indian guy?" I lament. "How can they do this?!"  The Humane Society, or someone, wants you to know that Kant thinks our treatment of animals is the measure of humanity, and maybe it is, but for my money there's no clearer sign of character than whether or not one treats the landscape– however suburbanized and inviting it may seem– as his personal ashtray.

Manage your freakin' trash, loser.

Anyhow, a picture may be worth this and be an agent of that, but in the Roman Empire most writing was done in the scroll format on papyrus, and that's an inhospitable environment for pictures. We roll up scrolls. Papyrus crumbles over time. Anything painted on such a document would fade, flake, or fail, and fast. (Of course, China mastered the painted scroll, but that's another story involving a different set of technologies and media. Maybe we'll talk about it someday.)

Happily, scrolls in Rome gave way in time to books in the codex format. This is roughly the same format as a hardback book today, with sheets folded into quires, stitched along one side, cut into pages, and then stacked, stitched some more, and finally bound. The main difference is that pages in a Roman codex — and in codices for more than a thousand years afterward– were made of skin. (It puts the vellum in the volume….)

The codex was known as early as the first century AD, but really took off in the AD 300s, when the format definitively superseded scrolls. And here's the thing about a codex: since a parchment page is strong and flat and stabilized by stitching and binding and such, it's actually quite a good place to paint pictures. So the first picture books appear sometime during the 400s or 500s AD. A tome in Rome gives pics a planar home.

Painted books– especially those with silver or goldleaf– are called "illuminated" manuscripts. The earliest illuminated codex we know is a fragmentary volume of Vergil's Georgics and Aeneid from the early 400s. Another illustrated Vergil and an illuminated Iliad also survive from the 400s, so bringing these epic tales to life by way of pictures must've been a thing then, at least among those who could afford such luxuries and could read.

Also probably from the 400s, though possibly earlier, is the Cotton Genesis, the earliest biblical manuscript that features pictures. It was badly damaged in a fire in the 18th century, but the charred scraps still make obvious its former glory. The oldest non-barbecued biblical manuscript with pictures is the Vienna Genesis, made in Syria in the AD 500s.

So as soon as it was possible and seemed desirable to illustrate books, the ones receiving this treatment were the obvious choices: the epic poets and Genesis. But not all the choices in early illustrated books were obvious. Some are surprising.

Surprising choices abound in one of the most wonderful of the early illuminated books, the codex purpureus Rossanensis— the Red Book of Rossano. This tome, a cousin of the Vienna Genesis, contains Matthew and most of Mark, and it is possibly the oldest illustrated Christian book. (Other candidates include the Rabbula Gospels from AD 586, also Syrian, and the Garima Gospels from AD600?, Ethiopian.) The Rossano manuscript was one of a pair; the other, now missing, probably contained Luke and John. It seems the book was created in the AD 500s in Syria but somehow made its way to Rossano, a town in that part of Italy where plantar fasciitis is likely to set in if they don't watch their ways. It was discovered there and documented by astonished scholars in 1879.

What's so special about the Red Book? Well, as the illustration at the top of this post shows, its foot-high vellum pages were all dyed reddish purple and then inscribed with a lovely Greek uncial, the first few lines of each Gospel in gold and the remainder of the double-column text in silver. (I'd like to think that the Dead Gods' Book looked half as cool as this in the moments before it crumbled into dust.) As for the pictures, the illustrator (working in a medium and era that mandated originality) shows a design sense that is intricate, imaginative, and fascinating.

02.Rossano_009Cleverly constructed circles form the compositional basis for most of the illustrations. For example, the book presents a ring of discs surrounding the declaration "hupothesis kanonon tes ton euangeliston sumphonias." The text refers to a canon table, a system that Eusebius had developed for dividing the gospels into chapters and verses and harmonizing them. The circle of circled circles includes depictions of the four gospel writers in cardinal positions, united by interlacing borders but differentiated by the colorful and strangely patterned cogs that separate them.

Later, in a full-page depiction of Jesus and Barabbas before Pontius Pilate, the illuminator relies again on circularity to delimit the edges of the crowd in the upper register and to organize the guardians and their prisoners in the lower:


The dignified, elegant stance of Jesus offers a contrast to the bent form of his bound counterpart. Circularity is again the dominant motif in a depiction of the Last Supper:


Here the twelve disciples, reclining per Middle Eastern custom, surround a semi-circular table. Jesus stands out by virtue of his circular halo and colorful garments. Most of the twelve wear team colors. The head of one is misaligned as he sops into the circular bowl in the center. The artist emphasizes not the bread and the wine but the breaking of the fellowship as betrayal seeps in.

Circularity unifies the illustrations throughout the book, but not in a rigid way. In fact, the general layout of most pages– including this one– follows a different pattern:


On most of the illustrated pages, the New Testament text continues in the upper region, above the corresponding illustrations, and four textual columns in the lower half of the page provide quotations from the Old Testament that bear some typological or prophetic relationship to the scenes above. Atop these textual columns, pertinent kings or prophets high-five each other and offer one another brogratulations for their proleptic Messianic chops.

Now, imagine that you're one of the first book illustrators ever, and that you've been commissioned to provide pics for the first illustrated gospel ever, and you have to come up with some subjects because there is no tradition to guide you. A theological advisor is available for consultation. What do you depict?

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of narrative content in the gospels: diegetic scenes from the story of the life and ministry of Jesus and hypodiegetic scenes from the parabolic stories-within-a-story that Jesus tells. There are many possible things one might choose from either category. Here's what the illustrator chose:

The four evangelists encircling the Eusebian declaration (extra-diegetic)
The Raising of Lazarus (diegetic)
The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (diegetic)
Jesus purging the Temple (diegetic)
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (hypodiegetic)
The Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet (diegetic)
The Communion of the Disciples with the Bread and Wine (diegetic)
Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (diegetic)
Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind (diegetic)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan (hypodiegetic)
Jesus before Pilate and the Suicide of Judas (diegetic)
The Choice between Jesus and Barrabas (diegetic)
Wisdom personified inspiring the evangelist Mark (extra-diegetic)

So the artist dips only twice into the parables; the scenes he selected must have been very important indeed in that culture. One he culls from the many available is the Good Samaritan, a tale so popular right down to this day that it's not surprising at all to find it here. The other is the Parable of the Ten Virgins. What?

Here's how it goes:

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.

But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.

Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (ESV, Matthew 25:1-13)

This is a puzzling parable for several reasons, but let's not delve too deeply into those waters. The thing to note here is that the teachings of this passage– whatever they were deemed to be in the AD 500s– must've been central to the theological thinking of the book's intended audience. Here's the page:


Just as before, we have the textual continuation along the top, the New Testament illustration, and then four columns of attestation capped by little Macarena saints from days of oy. Zooming in, we can make out the particulars of the parable:


Not a lot of circles here; everything is solemn columns. To the left, five variegated virgins (blue, gold, red, gold, black), fresh back from the corner store, wish to be let in and knock on the door in order to say so. Facing them on the other side of the threshold, Jesus waves bye-bye-bye at 'em and says, in so many words, "Do I know you?" Meanwhile, the other five virgins, dressed identically in pure white robes with racing stripes and holding aloft their lighted lamps, proceed along the four rivers of living water that show the way to paradise. Beside the waters near the feet of Jesus, a little tree stands firmly planted. Behind and beyond the processing virgins, fruit-bearing trees mark the way toward blessing and cupcakes.

This is a story of rejection, and the artist captures that fact dramatically. The wise virgins have already received the team jersey and are on their way to Eden regained; their poses match as they lean toward the goal. In contrast, the foolish virgins are diversified not only by color but by pose, by focus, by gesture, and by activity. They were incoherent in their preparation for the arrival of the bridegroom, and they remain incoherent as they undertake too little, too late, to remedy the situation. Between the foolish virgins and the bridegroom, Jesus, a freestanding door stands ajar, allowing Jesus and foolish virgin alpha to converse. The door, gold with a white frame, matches the robes of the wise virgins; their costumes indicate their belonging to the place they have entered. That place has plants and trees and waters and bees and cupcakes. In contrast, the place where the foolish virgins stand offers nothing. Jesus gestures through the portal, but he's not offering a blessing; he's indicating that he gave at the office, that he already has enough magazines, and that his HOA now forbids soliciting.

Why didn't the wise virgins share their oil? Why didn't Jesus accept the foolish virgins once they had scrambled after last-minute supplies? How does the apparent message of this parable stand in harmony with Christian precepts having to do with generosity, forgiveness, and amity?

Good questions, and I won't dwell on them. I'll just say this: if they could've shared, then perhaps the wise virgins would have done; but some things cannot be shared. The oil for their lamps is a metaphor; for what is it a metaphor? Oil that illuminates. If the Messiah is, by definition, the anointed one, and if oil in that context is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, and if having enough oil when the moment of need arrives is the name of the game, then perhaps each virgin's oil is her spiritual development, maturation, and discipline. These are vital to Christian life, but they cannot be shared at the whim or will of a mere mortal. "Go get your own" is the only loving thing to say when it comes to such things.

As my Sifu, had I one, might say: at the moment of crisis, you will do what you have trained to do. And if you find, when the crisis strikes, that you've gone and left yourself untrained, tant pis.

That explanation has the merit of making the wise virgins and J seem less… harsh. If something like that is the spiritual lesson of this parable, then we can see why it might have seemed quite important indeed to early Christians. And so it did, and it continued to seem important right down to the modern era. Here, for example, we have some sculptures from the entrance to a Gothic cathedral in Strasbourg over five hundred years later:



See how dignified they are, and how well dressed, and how responsible? And see how approving and yet stern Jesus seems as he considers them? A worshiper entering the cathedral would walk past them and might ponder their example. Or ponder the example of contrasting figures on the other side. These from the same era, from the Gothic cathedral in Erfurt, offer guidance by counterexample:


They're distorted and twisted and toothachy and migrainy from too much partying and not nearly enough lamp-trimmin'. They're like those seat-ghosts seen in the mirrors at the end of the Haunted Mansion ride. Which one is a match for you?


Roll forward another four hundred years or so, and we find the artist Hieronymus Francken the Younger, in 1616, painting a didactic image of the Parable of the Virgins in contemporary garb, and with modern preoccupations. The wise virgins sit in a pious huddle while the foolish virgins play the lute and virginals and 52 pickup and partake of wine and comedy and tragedy and art. Given a couple more centuries to party, they'd be reading Balzac. Up in the heavenlies, top center, wise and foolish virgins in a more abstract style try (half unsuccessfully) to enter the temple of Solomon in the New Jerusalem. The wise are orderly; the foolish chaotic.

18.Blake_William_VirginsNot long after 1800, Blake distills the parable into the formal contrasts we've been discussing: the wise are albescent, orderly, harmonious, and telic; the foolish are colorful, scattered, disparate, and confused. Cloud angel is blowin' horn leftward, and only those prepared for that final storm will weather it.


Around 1822, the painter Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow offers an academic version that retains many of the conventions first explored in the Rossano Gospels: order/chaos, centrality of Jesus, harmonious or discordant gestures, etc.

Among the modern versions, I think the most intriguing is the pair done in the 1880s or '90s in gouache over pencil on heavy paper by James Tissot:

The wise virgins:

19.Tissot_James_1880s_Wise_VirginsThe foolish virgins:


The wise virgins are somnolent nonentities, ready and steady. The foolish virgins, on the other hand, are oblivious and giddy. Look at their smiles, their flirtations, their wild ambling poses as they lunge headlong like toddlers who fall unhaltingly (with style!) toward their destination. They seem so happy, so clueless, so in-the-moment. Bless their hearts. They've ended up ill-prepared and damned unlucky for it. But they've had such fun! How can you not love 'em.


When the time comes to jettison that cigarette butt, will you throw it out the window? (For that matter, when the time comes to light that cigarette, will you instead refrain in favor of health and wellness?) Will you be carefree and oblivious to consequence? This much is sure: you'll do what you've trained to do.

Memory is a rum thing, yes? Weird stuff sticks, and needful stuff fades or fails to thrive. But there are ways to govern the churn, to stimulate persistence, to lock down the goods. Intelligible text helps. Memorable audiovisual gimmicks go far. ("Twas brillig, and the slithy toves….") Pictures, perhaps better than prose or poetry, can help lock down in memory the salient details. Not just consuming by reading or hearing or seeing but also producing by teaching goes farther. And, of course, not only learning of or teaching but actually practicing goes farthest of all.

That's the value of reruns. That's the value of ritual.

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