Literal and literary beauty

Codex Aureus of Echternach, around 1030, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

For all their obsession with beauty, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t care much about beautiful books. The papyrus rolls of the ancient world were objects of truth, of knowledge, of wisdom, of passion, but never of beauty. There is no evidence to suggest that readers appreciated the written word as a place, rather than a vehicle, of beauty.

The book of beauty was born later, in the dark recesses of medieval Europe. Objects of light and splendor emerging from the so-called dark ages. Light of and off the page.

The centuries following the fall of the Roman imperial structures in the West were followed by a double conquest, that of Germanic tribes and peoples, on the one hand, filling the void and displacing old Roman authority, and on the other, the advances of Latin Christianity, filling the void and displacing authorities as well.

And in the midst of these radical disruptions, the book of light converting hearts and minds, the blinding light of a new order. The beauty of the book, once seen cannot be unseen. The gospel books made in Ireland, England, Francia or Germany turned the history of the book on its head. If beauty had been a function of texts written and read in the context of widespread education and literacy, the new books of the new centuries had something else to offer: a vision of light and beauty never to be achieved in this world, but glimpsable in the illuminated, gilded sheets of the parchment codex.

Since then, we have been unable to unsee this great medieval achievement, and whether in books or elsewhere, the call to light, never clear, never unambiguous, is always around the corner. The darkened corner.

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