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Original scientific paper

The Header to the Ten Commandments in the Hval Codex: a Contribution to the Semantics of Medieval Illumination

Branislav Cvetković orcid id ; Regional museum Jagodina, Serbia

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page 155-172

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This article is dedicated to the interpretation of the header before the text of the Ten Commandments on fol. 150 of the Hval Codex. The author is drawing attention to a gloss in the margin to the left of the banner which has not been addressed in the earlier scholarly literature nor recorded in the facsimile transcription of 1986. The rectangular banner consists of a lozenge net filled with gold lilies while three gold interlace crosses of a complex shape are placed on top of the banner. The gloss next to it was written in blue ink as an abbreviated word under a line. It is a rather common abbreviation from the nomina sacra category (God). The significance of this hitherto-overlooked gloss is extraordinary. It was written in the same manner which was used for adding legends to miniatures or headers in order to clarify images in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Hval wrote similar notes in several margins of this manuscript.
The location of the gloss itself points to its function as an explanation of the banner before the words which the Lord communicated to Moses on Mount Sinai. That the text of the Ten Commandments was significant in Bosnian illuminated manuscripts is also attested to by the header before the Ten Commandments in a Venetian miscellany codex, which depicts the narrative scene of the theophany on Sinai while, at the same time, containing a fairly long inscription which clarifies the image. Similar textual clues appear in the Dobrejšovo Evangelie, the most important of which is the one positioned next to the Synaxarion header where the inscription, “this is heaven which is also called paradise”, explains the scene. In the context of such examples, this article discusses analogous material from illuminated manuscripts and monumental painting alike by applying a new approach to the study of function of medieval ornament, while also highlighting the problem of the etymology of the notion of ornament in different languages. The findings resulting from this research show that the function of ornament in a religious context was not just decorative, but that it was used to mark the holiness of a space, that is, the presence of the divinity, which is a phenomenon witnessed in illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings, icons and reliquaries.
H. Kessler’s research into Judeo-Christian symbol-paradigms confirms the essential importance of the depiction of the Old Testament tabernacle in the manuscripts of the Christian Topography as a source of ornamental motifs. They can be grouped into a relatively narrow set of symbols, always included in a structural system: star-shaped schemes, fields of flowers, interlace and lozenge nets as well as chequers. Their origin is found in the coffered vaults of classical tombs and temples where they represented the sky and Elysium. They were transported to medieval art through identical motifs which were painted in the catacombs and early Christian basilicas. It is these exampes that constitute a formal template for the header to the Ten Commandments in the Hval Codex the meaning of which is, therefore, a symbolic depiction of the Word, Logos, as the source of God’s Ten Commandments, which is why the banner was marked with a corresponding gloss.
The article also pays attention to an unusual illumination in the Gospels of Jakov of Serres because it also witnesses that a grid with floral motifs possessed a special meaning to educated medieval men. The portion above the head of Metropolitan Jakov, formed by a band of a lozenge net with flowers, has been described in the scholarship only as decorative, that is, as forming a floral background, but, given that its position and shape both conform to signifiers of heavenly kingdom in Byzantine manuscripts of the Christian Topography, it is erroneous to interpret it only as a floral background and a mere ornament. In this case too, the lozenge field filled with flowers denotes the Empire of God to which Jakov directs his prayers. Therefore, when one studies ornament in a religious context, it is necessary to use a more precise language, one which is rooted in the manuscript material itself. A concrete evidence for such a practice can also be seen in the colophon of this manuscript because the scribe who wrote it compared all of the decoration in the codex to the starry sky of a theological rather than actual kind.
Other notes in the Hval Codex margins are also mentioned in the article. Some of these record the name of the manuscript’s commissioner who was addressed out of respect as uram (Hungarian for “my sire and master”): Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić, Grand Duke of Bosnia and a Herzog of Split. The article emphasizes the need to study more closely the location of glosses and all other marginal notes within the codex, and highlights the fact that the two notes recording the name of the patron were placed next to the Gospel sections describing Christ’s healing miracles which, generally speaking, figure prominently in Christian art and exegesis. Furthermore, the article also analyzes the previously-unpublished illumination which depicts Moses in front of the Burning Bush, the branches of which were rendered as interlace ornament resembling a labyrinth. The rendition of the Burning Bush as interlace stemming from the floral frame of the header is a unique example which demonstrates that medieval art did not consider ornament as a meaningless arabesque but that it frequently functioned as a signifier.


middle ages, illuminated manuscripts, glosses, ornament, Tabernacle, Ten Commandments, Burning Bush, Hval, Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić

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