How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 1/3: Understanding medieval art

Medieval art or iconography is a rich resource for the researcher of medieval musical instruments, giving information about the physical features of gitterns, citoles, lutes, fiddles, and so on, the extent of their popularity and geographical reach, and design changes over time.

However, common features of medieval art, such as size distortion and perspective distortion, mean that an individual instrument cannot be reconstructed from the page, painting or sculpture uncritically. This has led some commentators to suggest that medieval art is wholly defective and unreliable for instrument makers and players.

Using examples from iconography, I aim to show that illustrations of medieval instruments yield valuable and practically applicable data if we have a considered and historically informed approach.

This article, the first of three, discusses:

the debate about representation and idolatry in the early church, and how this affected art;
how symbolism is fundamental to representation and meaning in medieval art;
how and why proportion in medieval art is often symbolic rather than naturalistic;
nonetheless, the case for realism in medieval art, that it gives important real-world information, with examples from farming and ornithology;
and that this real-world information extends to our knowledge of medieval instruments, with examples.

We begin with a video of medieval instruments – bray lute, citole, gittern, harp and bray harp – playing the three voice polyphonic Mariam Matrem Virginem attolite from El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), 1396-99, with a commentary of instrument information. Further information about these instruments, gleaned from iconography, is summarised in this article.

Having made the case for the value of iconography in this first article, the second article continues by suggesting 10 principles for gaining musical instrument information from medieval art. These principles are then tested in the third and final article by the recreation of a gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18.

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Alliterative animals making medieval music in Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges (14th century)

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Alliteration was a foundational feature of medieval verse. Animals playing musical instruments are regularly seen in medieval art. The 14th century stone-carved musicians of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, Oxfordshire, delightfully bring these two elements together: there are nine instruments played by eight alliterative animals (one plays two), including a sheep playing a citole and a boar playing a bagpipe (above). 

This article begins with examples of alliteration in medieval poetry (Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman), songs (Foweles in þe frith, Doll thi ale), and the medieval mystery plays; followed by illustrations of animals playing music in medieval and renaissance art. That is the background for a brief history of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, and an explanation of its eight alliterative animals playing medieval music, with photographs of every carving and a video of each instrument being played.  

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The evidence for straps used with medieval, renaissance and baroque musical instruments

To play a musical instrument comfortably, sometimes the player needs a strap to stabilise it. What is the historical evidence for the types of straps used for medieval, renaissance and baroque instruments?

As this article will show, in trying to discover the historical evidence for straps, we immediately encounter the conventions of artistic representation. Medieval artists until the 15th century typically did not show straps, even when an instrument was impossible to play without one; and renaissance and baroque artists showed straps inconsistently and often only partially.

This article takes a roughly chronological look, sifting the artistic conventions from the practical realities to discover if and how straps were used on a range of historical instruments: citole; gittern; harp; psaltery; portative organ; simfony; pipe and tabor; cittern; guitar; nakers; and lutes from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 8/8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the last of eight articles about the iconography of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire: 71 musical minstrels carved in stone and wood in the 14th century; musical misericords of the 16th century; and neo-Gothic musicians carved in the early 20th century. Beverley Minster has more medieval musicians and more misericords than any other church in the world.

The first article gives a potted history of the building being established in the 8th century, then expanded in the 13th and 14th century, then the medieval minstrels being smashed by Puritans in the 16th-17th century and restored in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second, third and fourth articles describe all the 14th century carvings of musicians, and the fifth sought to answer the question: why are there so many more medieval minstrels in this church than anywhere else? The sixth article explains the meanings of the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh describes the musical misericords of 1520 and the neo-Gothic organ screen of 1878–80 and 1919. This final article seeks to answer one central question: why, in the modern age, has the Minster’s medieval iconography been so poorly served?

Through a review of literature about Beverley Minster from the late 19th century to the present, we will see the repeated pattern of either ignoring the minstrels altogether or muddled misnaming of the medieval instruments. This has been widespread in academic journals, in specialist books, and in publications for the general reader. This is a situation which still persists today, perpetuated by literature published by Beverley Minster.

First we outline the Beverley Minster Project, which would have provided an accurate book about the minstrels with illustrative photographs, complete with music CD/downloads; a concert with all the instruments of the Minster being played by medieval music specialists; an audio-visual tour of the minstrels for visitors; education for guides; and a new website about the minstrels linked to the main Beverley Minster site. This proposal would have been fully-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, at no cost to the Minster – indeed they would have generated money from it – and it would have promoted the Minster as an educational attraction for schools and individuals on the subject of historical music. The project was turned down without any engagement.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 7/8: Tudor misericords and neo-Gothic musicians.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles about the musical carvings in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 14th century carvings of musicians, more than in any other medieval site, as well as more Tudor misericords than in any other church, some of them musical, and a neo-Gothic organ screen with medieval instruments.

Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the medieval minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asks why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley. The sixth article completes the description of 14th century iconography with the allegorical carvings.

This seventh article moves from the medieval period to the renaissance and describes musical aspects of the 16th century misericords – animal and human musicians, fools and morris dancers, playing bagpipes, harp, fiddle, hunting horns, and pipe and tabor – and the neo-Gothic imitations of medieval instruments on the 19th–20th century organ screen, with lyre, timbrel, harps, portative organs, simfony, cornetts, gittern or koboz, and lute.

The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 6/8: Medieval beasts and allegories.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are a total of 71 musicians, more than in any other medieval site. Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asked why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley.    

This sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings and beasts of the Minster which accompany the minstrels on the west, north and south walls. We will see allegorical carvings and describe the medieval meanings of: dogs and their owners; a thirsty snake attacking a man; a fighting lion and dragon; a lustful goat carrying nuns to hell; Reynard the trickster fox; a wild hairy man of the woods (woodwose); a beard-tugging pilgrim; a faithless pilgrim in the grip of a two-headed dragon (amphisbaena); half-human half-ass hybrids (onocentaurs); asses being carried by people; Triton the merman; and foliate heads, now misleadingly called green men.

The next article examines musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the neo-Gothic imitation medieval instruments of the 19th–20th century organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 4/8: The minstrels of the tombs, reredos, Saint Katherine’s chapel, and south transept.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the fourth in a series of eight articles about the 71 stone and wood carvings of musicians created between 1330 and 1390 in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Since Beverley Minster has more iconography of medieval musicians than any other surviving historical site, these articles are a survey of the musical life of 14th century England.

Having given the Minster’s history in the first article, described the medieval musicians of the arcades and triforium in the second article and those on the walls either side of the nave in the third article, here all the outstanding medieval stone and wood carvings are explored in the remaining parts of the church. We will see 14th century carvings of musicians playing bagpipes, hunting horn, vielles (medieval fiddles), harps, portative organs, psaltery, oliphants, and nakers. These carvings raise questions about: the history of the influential de Percy family from the Norman conquest to the English Civil War; the royal and military practice of blowing elephant horns; and the pre-eminence for medieval musicians of the fiddle, bagpipe, harp and portative organ.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 3/8: The minstrels of the west, north and south walls.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

There are 71 images of 14th century musicians in stone and wood in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire, more than in any other medieval site. This is the third in a series of eight articles about the Minster’s medieval minstrels, surveying the musical life of 14th century England. This article explores the carved musicians of the west, north and south walls, who are depicted playing medieval fiddles (vielles or viellas), gitterns, timbrel (tambourine), bagpipes, portative organs, citoles, harps, pipes and tabors, horns, cymbals, simfony, psaltery, nakers, and trumpets. Each instrument is described, with a photograph and a link to a video of the instrument being played.

In this article, the carvings on the walls teach us about: the meaning of minstrel; fashions of the 14th century; a medieval menagerie of captive animals from overseas; a transition in the form of the portative organ; the fog of confusion in differentiating between the citole and gittern, only recently lifted; evidence of medieval fiddle tunings; and the difficult art of restoration and repair in both medieval art and medieval music.

This is followed in the fourth article with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the tombs, altar screen, Saint Katherine’s chapel and south transept; and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; and the seventh article explores musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and Beverley Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 1/8: Foundation, destruction, and restoration.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway

This is the first in a series of eight articles about the medieval musical iconography of Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Beverley Minster has a remarkable 71 medieval carvings of musicians in stone and wood, more in one place than any other site, as well as 68 magnificent Tudor misericords, more than in any other church. The current building originates from the 13th century onward, its musical carvings largely from the 14th century, with some additionally from the 16th and 19th–20th centuries.  

This series of articles is the first and so far the only available account in print or online to photograph and describe all the medieval musical iconography and many of the allegorical carvings of this historically important church. The articles are illustrated by colour photographs by the author, acting as a survey of the musical instruments and religious culture of 14th century England.

This first feature is an introduction to the Minster’s history: its foundation in the 10th century under King Athelstan; its attempted destruction under Henry VIII and then the Puritans; with a particular focus on the repair of its stone medieval minstrels in the late 19th and early 20th century by John Percy Baker, making it possible for visitors today to admire the minstrels rather than view only vandalised fragments.

Following articles explore the carvings of 14th century minstrels high in the arcades, triforium and capitals (article 2); on three walls at eye level (article 3); and in the rest of the church, such as the Minster’s two tombs (article 4). This is followed by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster (article 5)? Because they are too interesting to omit, the next article surveys the wonderful 14th century stone carvings of allegorical dogs, Reynard the fox, beard-pullers and dragons, some with two heads (article 6). The penultimate article surveys the musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen, with its imitation medieval instruments (article 7). The final article surveys literature about Beverley Minster, puzzling over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in its own heritage (article 8).

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The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz.

In the first article, I explained why the koboz (kobza, cobza) found in 1986 in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland (above left), dated to 1350–1450, cannot be a gittern, though it is always identified as such in modern literature.

In this second article we discover the difficulties of nomenclature in early eastern, medieval, and renaissance literature, with several quite different instruments named koboz or its variants; and that the same situation persists today. How then to establish the lineage and history of the Elbląg instrument from historical sources? First we define the characteristics of the Elbląg koboz and, having established the parameters of an instrument of the same type, we see such kobzas in iconography from the 14th to the 17th century in Turkey, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), Hungary, France, Catalonia, England, Italy and Flanders, with possible further sightings in Romania.

I conclude that, this being the case, a new instrument can be added to the lexicon of medieval and renaissance instruments: the koboz, of which the Elbląg find of 1350-1450 is a surviving historical example. 

We begin with a video of the popular 16th and 17th century tune, Sellenger’s Round, played on a copy of the Polish Elbląg koboz.

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Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 2/2: Medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique.

Part 1 brought together the written, iconographical and material evidence for the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory.

In part 2 we examine the practical evidence for medieval plectrum technique. Iconography is presented to demonstrate medieval ways of holding a plectrum; suggestions are made for easy accompaniment of monophonic melodies; the myth that plectrum instruments could not play polyphony is disproven; and evidence is presented for an intermediate stage in the 15th century between playing with a plectrum and playing with fingertips, using both simultaneously. Finally, we answer the question: were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?

This article includes 6 videos to illustrate medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique, beginning with citole and gittern playing an untitled polyphonic instrumental – probably a ductia – from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65. 

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The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 1/2: What is a citole?

© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The citole, a plucked fingerboard instrument of the 13th and 14th centuries, is today the most misunderstood of all medieval instruments. It is regularly wrongly identified as a plucked fiddle or a guitar, often confused with the cetra, and mistaken assumptions are made about its string material and its distinctive wedge neck with a thumb-hole.

Using the surviving British Museum citole, medieval iconography and medieval testimony, these two articles set out the evidence, drawing on the ground-breaking research of Laurence Wright, Crawford Young and Alice Margerum, with some additional observations.

This first article describes the citole’s physical form, string material and tuning. The second article describes the playing style and repertoire of the instrument.

We begin this article with video of a copy of the British Museum citole playing music from c. 1300: La seconde Estampie RoyalThe second Royal Estampie. Read more

Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 3/3: Music and musicians in the complete works of Bosch

In Part 1, we explored the modern myth that the ‘music’ on the backside of a sinner in Jheronimus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is real and playable. We saw that it is not Gregorian notation, as is repeatedly claimed, but a faux and unreadable imitation of Strichnotation. As the present article will show, Bosch painted equally faux and unreadable Strichnotation in two more paintings and one drawing.   

In Part 2, we surveyed all the musical imagery and the overall schema of The Garden of Earthly Delights, exploring historical sources for the meaning of each musician punished in hell, their instruments used as torture devices against them.    

That leads us to the central question of this third and final article on Bosch’s relationship with music. Here we survey the rest of Bosch’s entire works, his paintings and drawings, for music and musicians. Every musical image is presented with a brief description and explanation, referencing literature Bosch would have known. The sum total of Bosch’s musical depictions raises the question: What was the nature of his beliefs that he imagined all musicians as wicked sinners and monstrous creatures who are eternally punished in hell? We search for answers in his locality, his biography, and the clues he left with his brush.   

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 2/3: The Garden of Earthly Delights

In part 1, we examined the repeated claim that the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, includes readable Gregorian notation painted on a sinner’s bottom, and provided evidence that this is not the case.

In part 2 we explore the message about music in the whole triptych. We will see Bosch’s preaching with paint, the symbolism of sin in his Garden, featuring Lucifer’s lutes, hell’s hurdy gurdy, Beelzebub’s bray harp, Diabolus’ drum, a recorder in the rectum, Satan’s shawm, a terrifying trumpet and triangle, a brazen bagpipe, and the unplayable music on the sinner’s bottom and in the book he is lying on.

This article makes reference to literature from Bosch’s Netherlands and beyond, from his lifetime and before, to explore the rich meaning of his imagery: the nakedness of his figures, a massive mussel, oversize strawberries, a bird-man on a commode devouring sinners, demonic serpents, giant instruments of music made into instruments of torture for musical sinners, and the choir of hell.

Finally, in part 3 we seek the answer to the question posed by this painting and by all of Bosch’s work: what did Bosch have against music, and against musicians?

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 1/3: The modern myth of Bosch’s butt music

In recent years, a story about a detail in Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been repeatedly told: that a sinner on the hell panel of the triptych has real music painted on his bottom, only recently discovered. Periodically, articles and videos reappear on social media with a performance of the same attempt to make sense of it, created by Amelia Hamrick in 2014. Is this oft-repeated butt music credible?

To put Bosch’s painting in its historical context, a previous article, Performable music in medieval and renaissance art, examined the role of both faux music notation and playable music in medieval and renaissance art. This article explains why the paint on the sinner’s bottom does not represent real music, and why attempts to interpret the ‘music’ are based on erroneous assumptions and misunderstandings. A second article, available here, explains the rich symbolism of The Garden, including the meaning of musicians tortured by their own instruments, silenced by the demons of hell. A third and final article, available here, surveys the musical symbolism in all Bosch’s works, and asks why his depictions of music are always grotesque, associated with sin, punishment and hell.

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Performable music in medieval and renaissance art

In the medieval and renaissance periods there were plentiful images of musical instruments and singers in manuscripts, paintings and sculpture, and many manuscripts of music notation survive from those eras. There are rare instances which bring these two elements together: an artist’s image of singers and musicians in which an actual piece of music is shown, readable and performable by the viewer.

That is the subject of this article, sifting out the faux music from the real, addressing questions of message, symbolism and meaning, asking why artists chose to include performable music, and how this painted sound adds to the communication of the artist and the significance of the art.  

This article ranges from face-pulling singing monks to Marian antiphons, from a lute-playing Mary Magdalene to a unique survival of Gloria notation, from Jheronimus Bosch’s egg to lustful monks, with paintings, soundfiles and video examples of music notation in art. It can be read stand-alone, or as a precursor to three essays about music in the art of Jheronimus Bosch, the first of which focusses on the alleged ‘butt music’ in Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, available to read here.

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