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Picture Book Romance

A visit with Anne Rudloff Stanton, Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology

By Jessica Huang
Published: - Topics: art history queen marginalia psalms Old Testament

Anne Rudloff Stanton loves romance. She loves the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it smells—but only when it’s found in the margins of 14th-century books. The professor of Art History and Archaeology describes one example—a small drawing of a man leaving a woman—and she leans forward as if she were talking about a mutual friend of ours. “There’s this long sequence of the story of Moses, who, as you may not know, was married before he married Zipporah,” she begins. “He first married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.”

According to the story, the Ethiopian princess Tharbis first glimpsed Moses as he besieged the main city, and she fell madly, passionately in love with him. She sent a messenger to offer a proposition: if he would marry her, he could gain access to the city. “He sent back a message apparently saying yes, so she opened the gates and they married,” Stanton says. “Then he wanted to go back to Egypt. Having learned all kinds of magical Egyptian crafts, Moses crafted two jewels. One of them carried an image that promoted memory and one of them carried an image that promoted forgetfulness. He put them in rings and he gave the ring of forgetfulness to Tharbis.”

This fascinating story is not found in the Bible, but occurs in other ancient and medieval texts and is depicted in the margins of a book of psalms belonging to Isabella of France, a 14th-century queen of England. Stanton is researching this kind of sequential marginalia, the narrative art that appears in the margins of some medieval manuscripts, because such images provide interesting insight into medieval attitudes toward prayer and vision.

These stories are typically depicted in tiny images. “It was when I was working on this stuff that I discovered I needed progressive lenses to really see them,” Stanton explains, “and a magnifying glass.” But she believes that their small size reveals an intentional strategy. At the time these manuscripts were made, few laypersons—that is, people who were not priests, monks, or nuns—could fluently read the Latin prayers that were the primary devotional texts. However, these prayers appear to have had an almost magical power in the minds of many medieval people, who memorized bits of texts or wore them as little talismans, close to the body, to ward off evil. Stanton is exploring the idea that the need to hold these manuscripts close to the eyes, while squinting at the tiny images, is related to their magical quality. The tiny images, which brought the words of nearby sacred texts closer to viewers’ eyes, heightened the impact of the Latin prayers for their lay users.

“How do you get a fifteen-year-old noblewoman, who could really care less about David’s prayer in his time of need, to really get the goods?” Stanton asks. “It’s like grating carrots into brownies, sneaking vegetables into your kids’ food. That’s what it reminds me of—sneaking the prayers into the heart of the worshiper.”

As an undergraduate, Stanton studied painting. After graduation, she found herself at Columbia University in New York visiting a friend who ran projections for an art history course. She sat in the class and enjoyed it so much that she decided to go back to school. Her doctoral thesis on the Queen Mary Psalter, a 14th-century illuminated manuscript now named after its 16th-century owner Queen Mary Tudor, pointed her in the direction of later research.

Illuminated manuscripts are intimate, hand-made objects, Stanton notes, usually made for specific people. Her investigation of manuscripts owned by Queen Isabella of France reads like a novel as well. As an adolescent, Isabella was married to King Edward II, who was one of the more unsuccessful kings of medieval England. According to social norms, Isabella was “a very well-behaved queen.” She bore her husband four children, including Edward III, who would be the king’s successor. But at some point in the 1320s, while visiting her brother in France, she became fed up with her lack of influence on a king whose behavior was damaging the realm their son would eventually rule.

She forced Edward II to abdicate his throne in favor of his young son. Since Edward III was too young to run a country, Isabella ruled alongside her lover, Roger Mortimer. Three years later her son forced her to step down, executed Mortimer, and took control of the English throne in fact as well as name. Isabella remained quite active in politics even after this sequence of events, and she spent a lot of time remodeling her castles. “HGTV would have had a hoot with her if they’d been filming in the 14th century,” laughs Stanton.

Stanton offers a variety of courses at MU, from surveys of ancient through medieval art to graduate seminars on a variety of topics. She also teaches period surveys in late medieval, northern Renaissance, and Gothic art. Not surprisingly, one of her favorites is a 2000-level course called “The Art of the Book,” in which students examine books as both objects and works of art. Passing out examples – picture books, textbooks, novels – Stanton asks students to examine the books as if they were artifacts themselves and not to focus on their contents: “I try to get us back to the book as an object that’s designed to move you through the text and the contents in a certain way.” After they examine the history of such artifacts, from ancient scrolls to the modern children’s book, students get to make books of their own. Some have even prepared parchment—the material used to make Queen Isabella’s manuscripts—by scraping animal hides. “I’ve had some really interesting and beautiful creations,” she says.

Stanton believes that studying the material culture of our history is just as important as studying history itself. The materials provide context, she explains. That is why she regards art history “as the core discipline of the humanities, because we study where things happened, what the people who were doing important things were looking at, as well as the objects that reflect what these important people wanted to be remembered about their actions.” As she puts it, “If you are interested in history, you need to be interested in art history.”