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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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 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 5/8: The “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the fifth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article asks what is special about the Minster that it houses such a profusion of minstrel iconography, and finds the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”, a trade guild for professional musicians which covered the whole of the north east of England.

This is followed in the sixth article with an examination of the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; in the seventh article with musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the 19th–20th Gothic revival century organ screen; and the final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Left to right, fiddle, citole and harp as they appear in the Romance of Alexander, MS. Bodl. 264, 1338-44, and above as they appear carved in Beverley Minster, 1330-40.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 2/8: The minstrels of the arcades, triforium and capital.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the second in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article explores the carved musicians of the arcades, triforium and a capital, depicted playing harps, fiddles, bagpipes, timbrels, shawms, gittern, citole, portative organ, psaltery, pipe and tabor, nakers, and a drum. Each instrument is described, accompanied by a photograph of the Minster minstrel carving, with a link to a video of the instrument being played. This article thereby acts as a survey of the musical life of 14th century England.

This is followed in the third and fourth articles with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the rest of the church, and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh article focuses on 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 the Minster’s lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 1/2: Why the koboz was misidentified.

In 1986, an instrument identified as a gittern was found in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland, dated to 1350–1450. Having commissioned luthier Paul Baker to create a replica, the instrument that emerged was a puzzle, taking Paul and I on a journey of discovery to reveal the true identity of the recovered instrument.

This is the story of the musician who commissioned a gittern and received a koboz (kobza, cobza, plural kobzok). To understand the true identity of the instrument, this article explores the Elbląg excavation; structural reasons the instrument cannot be a gittern; and a potted history of Elbląg and Poland, placing the instrument in its historical context, revealing why the scholarship so far has misidentified the instrument.

This is followed in part 2 by an exploration of the difficulties of language in medieval accounts, where the same word is used for a variety of instruments. The characteristics of the particular type of koboz found in Elbląg are established, and examples of its appearance given in eastern and western European literature and iconography, previously unrecognised, hidden in plain sight. Finally, the importance of the Elbląg find is evaluated.

We begin with a video of 15th century Polish music, Angelus ad virginem missus, played on a copy of the surviving Elbląg koboz.

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The vihuela and viola da mano: siblings of the lute

All players of early music will be familiar with the lute, the plucked polyphonic instrument par excellence of the European renaissance. In 16th century Spain, prime position was given not to the lute but to the vihuela da mano, depicted in Spanish iconography as the instrument of Orpheus, Arion, Venus, and the angels of heaven. The vihuela drew upon the polyphonic compositions of Europe for its intabulations, as well as having had its own repertoire in 7 books printed between 1536 and 1576 by such Spanish composers as Luis Milán, Luys de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra. In 16th century Italy, where the lute was dominant, the vihuela was called the viola da mano, and was suggested as an alternative to the lute in two prints of the music of Francesco Canova da Milano, musician to three successive popes.

This article traces the vihuela/viola da mano through its medieval origins; explains its relationship to the lute; illustrates the connection between the bowed vihuela/viola and the plucked vihuela/viola; describes the three surviving instruments; shows, through iconography, the difference in plucking style between the Spanish vihuela and the Italian viola da mano and lute; discusses the evidence for octave or unison stringing of courses; outlines the available music; and describes its use in mythological imagery.

We begin with a video performance of fantasia del quarto Tono by Luys de Narváez on vihuela/viola da mano. To illustrate the process of intabulation (turning a polyphonic song into a polyphonic piece for plucked strings) there are three videos of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz (A thousand regrets): for 4 voices; for solo vihuela; then for voice and lute. A fourth video shows a viola da mano playing a recercare by Francesco Spinacino and Rossina by Hans Judenkünig. We conclude with links to facsimiles of all 16th century vihuela tablature prints.

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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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Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 1/2: Medieval plectrum materials and manufacture.

Studies of medieval musical instruments draw upon written testimony, iconography (manuscript art, painting, drawing, sculpture and stained glass windows) and surviving instruments to describe their characteristics and the way they developed over time. In my search for evidence about medieval plectrums, I was surprised to find not one dedicated paper, book chapter or webpage. This article is an attempt to bring the written, iconographical and material evidence together and present some new research, focussing on the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory. We begin with an illustrative video of La Uitime estampie Real (The Eighth Royal estampie), c. 1300, played on citole and gittern with plectrums of antler, horn and gut string. 

In the second article, we survey the evidence for plectrum playing technique, with practical applications for modern players of medieval music; and evaluate whether all medieval plucked instruments were played with plectrums.   

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The medieval harp (3/3): performance practice

Psalter, England, c. 1225 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS G.25, folio 3v).

This is the third of three articles about the medieval harp. Having outlined harp history from the earliest evidence in Egypt to the end of the medieval period in the first article, and used medieval art and written witnesses to illustrate harp symbolism in the second, this final piece lays out the evidence for questions of harp performance.  

The basis of this article is a description by the author Thomas of the playing of a harper-hero named Horn, written c. 1170, combined with other sources to built up a picture of medieval harp practice. This includes: harp tuning as a performance; the training of musicians; the various ways in which medieval harps were tuned and the musical reasons for these tunings; harp repertoire; preludes and postludes; and medieval methods of polyphonic accompaniment.

Each of these three articles begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to the historically attested performance principles set out in this article. This article begins with La quinte estampie RealThe fifth Royal estampie.   

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The medieval harp (2/3): harp symbolism

In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.

This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Sexte estampie RealThe Sixth Royal estampie.

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“the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church

In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.

How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; church councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.

Images from The Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1340 (BL Add MS 42130).
Top row, left to right: church singers (f. 171v); bishop (f. 31r); pilgrim (f. 32r); nun (f. 51v).
This row, left to right, players of: harp (f. 174v); pipe and tabor (f. 164v);
organistrum, also called the symphony (f. 176r); portative organ (f. 176r).

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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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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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Wired for sound: the bandora and orpharion

In the early music revival, many renaissance and baroque instruments have received their due recognition: the lute in its various forms, the viol family, early violins, recorders, guitars and keyboards, for example. Less familiar and less played are two related instruments, the bandora and orpharion. Both were strung with wire and plucked, they shared the same scalloped shape and fanned frets, and both were particularly popular in England. The deep pitch of the larger bandora made it eminently suitable as the plucked bass of the mixed consort, while the orpharion shared the tuning and repertoire of the renaissance lute and was considered an interchangeable alternative.

This article gives a brief history of both instruments, with indications of their respective repertoires, the descriptive testimonies of contemporaneous writers, some lost related instruments, and videos of both the bandora and orpharion being played.

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The pavan, the priest and the pseudonym: ‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ and Arbeau’s ‘Orchésographie’ (1589)

Belle qui tiens ma vieBeauty who holds my life – is today one of the most well-known songs of the French renaissance. It survived for posterity only due to it being a sung dance and thereby included in the personal project of Jehan Tabourot, 16th century priest, to write a book of the social dances he remembered from his youth, complete with their choreography and music. The book was Orchésographie, written in 1588-89 and published in 1589 under an anagrammatic pseudonym, Thoinot Arbeau.

This article has a brief biography of Jehan Tabourot and an explanation of the importance of Orchésographie for renaissance music and dance, followed by the beautiful words and meaning of the danced song, Belle qui tiens ma vie.

We begin with a video of the song, sung in English with renaissance lute.

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L’homme armé / The armed man: the remarkable life of a 15th century song and its contemporary resonance

armedman4L’homme arméThe armed man – has but one verse and a fabulous melody. It is like a door ajar, inviting us into a menacing world: “Everywhere it has been proclaimed that each man shall arm himself with a coat of iron mail. The armed man should be feared.” We don’t know its origin or who composed it, only that it emerged in the middle of the 15th century as a secular song in the French language. It enjoyed huge popularity across Europe among composers of masses, who incorporated its melody as a cantus firmus. Why did this single verse about fearing the armed man have such unprecedented resonance? The answer is in a disastrous military defeat in 1453 which cut to the very heart of renaissance cultural identity, a mirror to events and issues which strike at the core of our international identity today.

With a video of the melody arranged for lute, this article outlines the history and meaning of the song from the 15th century until the present day, including the roles of Sultan Mehmet II, Pope Pius II, and the sadly all-too-real Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.

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The crumhorn: a short history

presentTo modern ears, the most distinctive musical wind sound of the renaissance is the crumhorn, the J shaped wind cap instrument of the 15th–17th centuries. So unusual is its sound today that it was used in a Doctor Who episode to help create an unfamiliar soundscape (Doctor Who and the Silurians, 1970). In the renaissance, however, it was associated with the royal court, with ceremonial occasions and religious worship. This article briefly traces its history, and its perhaps surprising link with the bagpipes. With three accompanying videos: a crumhorn / lute pairing; the sound of the crumhorn’s probable predecessor, the bladder pipe; and a pavan played by a crumhorn consort.

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The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle

QueenMaryPsalter.Royal2BVIIf.174The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings for 5 strings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice, and whether they can be applied to fiddles with fewer than 5 strings. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This page provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.

There are two editions of this article. This one includes detailed analysis. For a brief introduction, go to On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.

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