Pages of stone

A great deal of medieval architecture was inspired by manuscript art. And a lot of medieval manuscript art began in building design.

One of the earliest elements of Western medieval book design was the Roman column, which served to frame text and help the reader navigate the written page. In early-medieval Latin bible manuscripts, the lists of concordances between the four Gospels are usually arranged using decorated round arches, the typical and most fundamental elements of ancient Roman architecture.

The columns of concordances identified similar passages between the four gospels. The ornamentation is decidedly Romanesque, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 6 (9th century)  

It is a fitting metaphor that the architectural page should provide support to the resident text. The codex itself being an architectural edifice, with its stacked-up quires bound together at the spine, ensconced in covering plates, a monumentum of solidity and permanence. If words are made of air (verba volant), then the written words, and the book lodging them, remain firmly grounded (scripta manent). Though mere ink and parchment, the codex is set in stone. As we flip through an ancient tome, we take a walk through the ruins, glancing at the foundations stones of our culture.

The manuscript books were understood by the scribes and copyists who made them as architectonical objects. Even readers saw them as such. It is widely agreed that Dante’s vision of paradise, the metaphysical temple of the Empyrean, was inspired by the Gothic style, itself an offshoot of medieval book design, diagrams, medallions, rotae and all. The rose of the closing cantos of the Divine Comedy was an articulation of the Gothic rose window, whose design had, by the 12th century, become a feature of medieval manuscripts.

Diagrams were one of the most common way to illustrate knowledge and help memorise text. They transformed the manuscript page into a complex structure, steering the eye and guiding the mind, British Library, Harley MS 3667 (12th century)

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