A New Narrative: the Power of Images Alongside Text

After reading pages 172-189 in OUMEM, I have a pretty different idea of how images supplemented medieval texts within the bindings of a manuscript. The last reading we dealt with briefly mentioned the way images had the power then to take the story in a different direction, but I didn’t realize that some images are actually completely obtuse and abstract renderings of the actual text – for better or for worse. In the case of the Pearl Manuscript, the miniaturist found ways to link all three poems (Pearl, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight respectively) with Biblical motifs. The editors of OUMEM is careful to note that “the artist can be seen not only as rendering ‘the first critical judgment of these poems’ but as creating on overarching spiritual narrative by linking the poems collectively” (173). This is a crucial role for someone to play, especially because scholars now seem to be heavily reliant on images and symbols. Their art served as a conduit for their own personal interpretations of the text and are now pretty important guides for us. I found it intriguing that, as opposed to more modern narratives, medieval stories’ underlying morals and meanings are contradicted by their illustrations, not enhanced by them. When I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, I did not even perceive it in the way that the artist seemed to. In relation to that of the artist, my interpretation was pretty much based on the poem’s face value: the most literal translations of its words. I see now that the illustrations were procured in a way that evokes revered or well-known Biblical representations; the beheading of the Green Knight is presented as an example of “the circumcision or the beheading of John the Baptist” (185). The OUMEM editors also link the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustration’s use of an otherworldly landscape to the motif of afterlife visions; this element, they argue, is one that unites the three Pearl poems. Again, I wouldn’t have perceived the text itself in this way without 1) having a more extensive knowledge of Biblical and medieval trends/tropes and 2) (most importantly) actually being able to see the illustration while or shortly after reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It makes sense, though, for the miniaturist to have opened up possibility for that sort of analysis. Widely regarded as a romance, the poem would not have seen much success to members of the church if it hadn’t been able to appeal to “the secular court” as well as “the heavenly one” (189).

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