- Tributes to Jonathan J. G. Alexander: The Making and Meaning of Illuminated Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts, Art & Architecture
It is not easy, these days, for a bright graduate student or relatively junior academic to have a book accepted for publication, or even to get an article into a volume of such distinction that it is reviewed in The Library. The way to do so is to edit or contribute to a Festschrift in honour of one's teacher. One invites a few very eminent and venerable professors to submit pieces too, which they will not refuse to do if the honorand is an old friend, and then one supplements these with articles by former students of the Festschrift's recipient. The result often creates a volume with personal but sometimes fairly minor entries by the famous sages (for the need to maintain a flow of Festschrift articles exhausts even the most ample of bottom drawers) mixed with articles of frenzied density by the younger scholars, desperate to distil their fresh PhDs and their most technical vocabulary into the allotted space or a bit more. The resulting confection can be very effective, like a well-managed academic conference. It must have pleased Professor Jonathan Alexander, recipient of this large dark blue volume, to see so many of his recent American pupils standing here shoulder to shoulder with giants such as François Avril, Michael Kauffmann, Bezalel Narkiss, and Lilian Randall.
The impression, however (and it may be quite wrong), is that the editors here found themselves out of their depth. Jonathan Alexander was born in August 1935. The Festschrift was published in 2006, and carries no mention of a birthday or anniversary. It was perhaps as much as six years behind schedule, to judge from the fact that at least three of its contributors have died (one as long ago as 2001, another in 2002); two articles are presented as previews of monographs now already in print, one since 2006. The editors make the unusual step of saying that they have not really edited the articles, but have left spelling and language as submitted. Several articles are supplemented by ill-fitting addenda. There is an audible sigh of despair in the allusion in the Introduction to 'the long process of assembling this volume'. The book is too heavy. It lacks some of the cutting edge of scholarship, and it rather lacks editing. It cannot have been an easy undertaking.
Jonathan Alexander is one of the most profound and wide-ranging of all historians of illuminated manuscripts. He has transformed our knowledge of medieval art, from the seventh century through to the high Renaissance a millennium later. The bibliography of his publications here runs to more than 150 entries. He has [End Page 416] introduced whole new ways of looking at themes such as illuminated initials, artistic identity, and the conflict between the flat surface of a page and the representation of three-dimensional reality. He has a memory for tiny detail and a grasp of enormous themes. He has never lost an engaging delight in manuscripts and the almost breathless excitement of discovery, and his ability to communicate this to students and to the public at large is evoked over and over again in the essays here. To encompass so many interests in one volume would have taxed even the most experienced editor.
There are thirty-four articles. About a dozen are by current or former students (here is an extreme example from p. 404: 'The parallel drawn between hell and the vagina as insatiable, dangerous mouth is important in the reading of Christ's wound as vagina'). The remaining articles cover many centuries and styles of book, and are mostly well-crafted and many are full of interest. They include François Avril on miniatures that are visual twins, Kathleen Scott on quirky English initials, Lilian Randall on tiny ape-like faces peering out at us...