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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Illuminations and Emotions

When I was in first grade I tried my hand at a royal portrait - not too bad, I think compared to some official portraits of the queen, although I am not at all sure about the ponytails.

Medieval illuminations in manuscripts, are often extremely attractive as works of minor art, and they are certainly useful tools for the historian. But just because they can be very informative, there is sometimes a tendency to read too much into them. Take the medieval maps of Jerusalem and Acre They are full of detail, with information that can not be found in any written sources or exposed in excavation. But equally, they are full of imaginations, exaggerations, distortions and errors, together with elements that we know to be reasonably reliable. One has to consider carefully how to make use of them.

There are no very detailed descriptions of the coronation ceremonies in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and one turns to the surviving illustrations that represent some of these occasions in manuscripts. The first coronation in the Latin East was that of Baldwin I, which took place in the church of Nativity in Bethlehem on 25 December, 1100. The high point of the ceremony is preserved in a thirteenth century illumination in William of Tyre’s Histoire d'Outremer. As this representation was made in the kingdom, in a scriptorium at Acre around the year 1287, it is, for all its medieval simplicity and standardised form, the nearest thing we have to help us visualise the central moment in the drama – the placing of the crown on the king's head. Baldwin appears dressed in a royal blue robe over a crimson gown. He holds in his right hand a sceptre (sceptrum) with a leafy finial, while the mitred patriarch of Jerusalem, Diambert of Pisa, his right hand raised in benediction, holds in his left hand the crown above Baldwin’s head. This was indeed the “crowning” moment of the ceremony. In a few seconds Baldwin would be the divinely ordained as overlord of the holiest of kingdoms on earth.

Fans of the Netflix series, The Crown, may find this illustration a bit lacking in the way it represents this highly charged and dramatic moment. The tiny representation is static and seemingly emotionless. Unlike modern coronations, the medieval coronation was reserved for a small and privileged group of spectators, and for anyone else the illumination in William of Tyre is all they could hope to see (not that many people would have had access to the manuscript).

But is this illustration entirely emotionless? If you observe the eyes of the king glancing aside towards the patriarch and somewhat down – tiny dots of black paint – do they not express something of the drama, of the emotions running through the veins of a man undergoing transition into the almost demi-god state of king? Do they not look just a little like the expression on the face of Claire Foy?

Perhaps not.

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