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  • Symposium

The Image of the Book: Representing the Codex from Antiquity to the Present

16th Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age

Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Orrery Pavilion, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, sixth floor

Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia
Parkway Central Library, third floor

This event has already occurred

November 16-18, 2023
Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts; Free Library of Philadelphia & Online
Open to the Public

Hosted by: Kislak Center

Detail of an opened illuyminated book of hours in a Renaissance painting.

A great deal of recent research has focused on the objecthood of the pre-modern book and its associated materiality. But only sporadic attempts have been made to understand the role of visual representations of the book in conveying ideas about knowledge. How can our understanding be transformed when the dictum that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is put into practice, when the how of depiction is accorded as much importance as the what of textual content? This symposium will examine the means by which the book, and in particular the manuscript, is described across a wide variety of media, from painting and sculpture to digital media and film. Topics to be addressed include the book as a symbol of authority, wisdom, or piety; the visual archeology of otherwise vanished bookbinding styles, reading practices, and study spaces; and the re-imagining of the physicality of the codex through digital means. The event will also mark the public launch at Penn Libraries of the Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art (BASIRA) project, an innovative, public-access web database of thousands of depictions of books in artwork produced between about 1300 and 1600 CE. The database, like the symposium itself, aims to engage historians of religion, literacy, art, music, language, and private life, as well as book artists, conservators, and interested members of the public. The symposium is organized in partnership with the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia (view on map).

The program will begin Thursday evening, November 16, 5:00 pm, at the Free Library of Philadelphia in the Rare Book Department, with a reception and keynote address by Jeffrey Hamburger, Kuno Francke Professor of German Art & Culture, Harvard University. The symposium will continue November 17-18 at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts (view on map).

The symposium will be held in person with an option to join virtually. All are welcome to attend. Use the link above to register.

Event Series

Program and Speakers

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Rare Book Department, Free Library of Philadelphia, Parkway Central Library, third floor, 5:00 - 7:00 pm

All registrants are invited to a reception before the lecture. The lecture will begin at 6:00 pm.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, sixth floor

Saturday, November 18

Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, sixth floor

Abstracts (in program order)

Thursday & Friday, November 17-18

Jeffrey Hamburger, Harvard University

In Sanskrit, the term avatar literally means “descent.” In medieval representations of inspiration, divine inspiration descends from the heavens to take on a variety of material forms. These can vary from the body of an inspired vehicle or vessel designated to transmit a sacred message, whether an angel, evangelist or Church Father, to a variety of objects all associated with the act of writing: tablets, books, scrolls, and inscriptions. Within manuscripts, such images automatically acquire a self-reflexive character, reinforcing the illusion of unbroken transmission, whether from God to inspired author or from an author to a disciple (and ultimately to the reader). The meanings and effects generated by such images depend on their embeddedness within an overall mise-en-page that extends to the scripts with which a given message is encoded and displayed. Within the pages of a book, ethereal inspiration takes on a material form or, rather, forms fashion the impression of inspiration. Inspiration is vested in the voice of the deity, but figurations of script and image, a distinction without a difference in many illuminated manuscripts, create the illusion that the book itself can speak.

Sonja Drimmer, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Since the turn of the present century the interdisciplinary field known as Book History has come to know itself and write the major narratives of its emergence. At last count, ten major companions, introductions, and guides to book history have been published in English alone in this twenty-year period, signaling the maturation of the field. Despite the diversity of these guides, they share a fundamental commitment to a deductive paradigm, drawing on teleological principles that assert a progression across time, “from roll to codex,” “from manuscript to print,” and so forth.

In this paper I make a case for the origins of the deductive mode of book history in eleventh century England by examining the changing representation of the Mosaic Tablets. It was around this time that Christian idealization of bibliographic form came to be racialized—designating scrolls as the emblems of Jews and codices the emblems of Christians. Yet the Mosaic Tablets, valued by Christians and a regular feature in Christian pictorial art, defied this racialized bibliographical taxonomy. This paper will address how manuscript illuminators confronted this conundrum and will examine the impact of their decision centuries beyond this confrontation.

Beatrice Kitzinger, Princeton University

How we read meaning in pictorial representations of books depends on many factors, including the form of book represented and the context in which it appears—not least whether it is depicted in use, and use of what kind. This paper discusses several cases in which the books that appear in an image are not finished, but actively under construction. It explores how the depiction of books-in-making—which sometimes appear as foils to finished codices—may function metaphorically, reflecting upon reasons for which books were made in the early and high Middle Ages, and ideas about how books functioned within reading communities. 

Georgios Boudalis, Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki

The aim of this presentation is to provide a general introduction to the technical aspects of the different types of wax tablet codices used in Greco-Roman antiquity, and subsequently investigate two things: first, how tablets are represented in different manifestations of Greco-Roman art, such as in red and black-figure pottery, sculpture, sarcophagi and wall paintings, and how accurate, and therefore how useful such representation can be for reconstructing the features of tablet codices of the time. Second, we will look at specific features of wooden tablet codices consistently represented in iconography but so far not properly investigated and interpreted. Examples of such features are the loops that extend from the head and tail edges of the two wax tablet codices shown in the late 3rd-4th century AD, wall painting of Trebius Justus from Rome, and the straps that extend from the spine edge of wooden tablet codices, such as for example the one in the Sappho portrait from Pompeii and in several Roman and Late Antique sarcophagi, funerary stelae etc. Considering these and other similar images an interpretation of these features will be proposed. 

In order to enhance the haptic, material and functional understanding of wooden tablet codices, four exact replicas of historic examples created for the exhibition The Codex and Crafts in late Antiquity will be available for participants to see and handle.

Alberto Campagnolo, Université catholique de Louvain

Historical bookbinding structures exhibit intricate compositions of diverse elements arranged in various formations. The Language of Bindings, a comprehensive Thesaurus developed by the Ligatus Research Centre at the University of the Arts London, provides a valuable resource for bookbinding terminology. However, these terms often fail to convey the spatial relationships inherent within these structures. Thus, the integration of graphics becomes essential to comprehend bookbinding arrangements fully.

To this end, a dual communication approach, blending verbal descriptions with visual elements, would augment our understanding of complex bookbinding structures. While standalone graphics can occasionally lead to misinterpretation or ambiguity, a harmonious verbal and visual communication combination offers a more comprehensive and precise representation. The BASIRA project is a notable model that exemplifies this dual approach to understanding artistic book representations.

Although AI text-to-image services are not yet trained to generate meaningful outputs in this context, automated metadata-to-diagram visualizations serve as an effective method for exploring and conveying intricate bookbinding structures in a standardized manner. These visualizations facilitate comparative analysis, enabling us to delve deeper into the intricacies of bookbinding structures.

Devin Fitzgerald, Yale University

In this paper, I will trace the evolution of the look of the Chinese codex and its emergence as an object of ceramic and lacquer imitation. Over the course of many centuries, the form of the Chinese paper codex became increasingly simple. Boards and paste were abandoned as more flexible papers were introduced. Book objects came to rely on elaborate boxes and cases to hold them together. The separation of boards from book bindings created books that were simultaneously uniquely partible and customizable, and during the eighteenth century, artisans at the Qing (1644–1911) court produced exquisite cases for imperial texts. At the same time as books became more ornate, court interest in verisimilitude led to the creation of the elaborate ceramic and lacquer boxes that imitated the look of the book. By the end of the eighteenth century, the fad for fake books spread from China to other parts of East Asia, making books, both real and imitation, an essential part of scholarly decor. 

Mindell Dubansky. Museum Librarian for Preservation. Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Throughout the world, for centuries, people have expressed themselves by making three-dimensional objects in imitation of books. They can be plain or fancy, and unique or manufactured. History has shown that infusing an object with bookish qualities creates a pleasurable, emotional attachment to the object analogous to our feelings for a favorite book. This in turn, increases our desire to own, share and treasure these objects, which Mindell Dubansky refers to as blooks. Abiding themes over time have include love, friendship, spirituality, mortality, remembrance, secrecy, home, fashion, entertainment, humor, travel and the book as repository for knowledge, recordkeeping, and instruction. In her presentation, Mindell will discuss these themes and share examples from her book Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren’t, as well as newly acquired items from her collection, in show-and-tell format. For an armchair tour of her 2016 Grolier Club exhibition, featured on CBS Sunday Morning, visit 

Barbara Williams Ellertson, Independent Scholar and SIMS
Nicholas Herman, SIMS

This event will mark the official public launch of Books as Symbols in Renaissance Art (BASIRA), an open access database of representations of books and other documents in artwork produced between approximately 1300 and 1600 CE, the period encompassing the advent of print culture in Western Eurasia. This brand-new, expansive web resource enables fine-grained searching of thousands of representations of books by myriad details, providing unique, detailed photographs unavailable elsewhere. Users can intuitively search for images by date, location, and artist, but also by dozens of other data points such as iconography, binding details, textual content, bookmark type, fastenings, and much more. Most interestingly, the database allows users to triage books based on who they are depicted with and in what circumstances. The long-term goal of the project is to produce a robust, global resource for book history while fostering connections between diverse disciplines and audiences. 

Saturday, November 18

Emine Fetvacı, Boston College

The Ottoman sultan Murad III (r. 1574-95) is typically portrayed in early-modern Ottoman illustrations with a book in his hand, and is renowned as a bibliophile. In this paper, I want to focus on the Zübdetü’t-tevarih (Quintessence of Histories), which is a universal history-cum-genealogy of the Ottoman house which was produced in three illustrated copies. All three culminate with a portrait of Murad III, seated and holding a red book in one hand, accompanied by attendants. No other rulers in the book are shown with a book, they have other attributes. The fact that Murad is the patron of the Zübdet is certainly one reason why he is singled out in this way, but the depiction is also part of a larger effort on the part of the ruler and his entourage to emphasize his learning and moral qualities as part of his public persona. The portrait is also a key to understanding the goals of the Zübdet project. This fascinating book is actually a translation into codex format of a sixteenth-century Ottoman genealogical scroll, an anomaly by any standard. By considering the choices that the book artists made in the transition, we will gain a deeper understanding of the codex as it existed in the imagination of Ottoman practitioners of the book arts, the broader idea or image of a book that the Zübdet embodies.

Thomas Rainer, University of Zurich

Since antiquity, the codex format has been used in Christianity to differentiate the Christian Scriptures from Old Testament law and prophecy. The polemical juxtaposition of open Gospel codex and closed Torah scroll was a standard topos of Christian apologetics. This polemic is reflected in numerous images that paint a distorted picture of the complex relationship between codex and scroll in Jewish liturgy. In the pictorial juxtaposition of Christianity and Judaism, book formats have been used selectively to highlight differences, and images that incorporate realistic elements of Jewish liturgical practice in Christian art are rare and usually overlooked. In this paper, I examine such examples from the 14th to the 18th centuries and compare them to depictions of scrolls and codices in Jewish art of the same period. Starting with a group of late medieval French miniatures that feature realistic elements of synagogue architecture, I show how the different pictorial traditions for depicting scrolls and codices interacted in complex ways in processes of religious identity-building. The tension between the integration and the exclusion of pictorial elements from the other religious tradition is studied based on both Christian and Jewish examples. In both religions we find depictions of the codex as a medium through which to imagine religious identity and difference. 

Dominique Stutzmann, Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes

This contribution presents an analysis of the iconographic motifs of scrolls, codices and inscriptions depicted in miniatures from books of hours. The primary focus is on examining a vast corpus of over 1,100 digitized books of hours, which together contain over 20,000 miniatures. The objectives of this study are twofold. First, to demonstrate that an artificial intelligence model, trained on a limited dataset, can proficiently detect not only miniatures in digitized images, but also representations of books within those miniatures. Second, to utilize a corpus of more than 6,000 images of books to explore their iconography and to take a transversal approach in examining the presence or absence of objects across diverse iconographies. In particular, we will analyze the context and depiction of the Virgin beyond the presence of “the Virgin Mary’s book at the Annunciation” (Miles 2020) as well as the representation of Evangelists and saints with a specific focus on the presence and form of the written Word. For the author portraits specifically, the research aims to investigate if books take part in “the number of ways of highlight[ing…] John’s preeminence as primus inter pares among the four Evangelists” (Hamburger 2002:49). By applying a scholarly approach and scrutinizing an extensive corpus of digitized materials, this analysis sheds new light on the iconographies found within miniatures in books of hours and addresses the presence of written artefacts both as iconographic attributes and as decorative elements.

Sabina Zonno, University of Southern California

This paper presents a digital humanities project developed at the University of Southern California by a multidisciplinary team who created a template that enables anyone to create fully immersive virtual reality experiences of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Wearing a relatively inexpensive VR headset, researchers, students, and general audiences find themselves immersed in a spatial and aural environment relevant to a selected manuscript, which is the focus of the experience. The virtual book is created with the combination of a 3-D model and parchment simulation that affords real-time page turning by the user. Anyone, anywhere, can access these experiences that make manuscripts – and even fragile manuscripts whose access is restricted by curation institutions – accessible globally. Also, people with no experience in handling manuscripts can engage with a virtual manuscript with no damage to the original. Because of the immersive character and high interaction level of virtual reality, which allows a sense of presence, people can interact with manuscripts, read their texts in the original language and in translations, and learn about past reading practices in spaces that may no longer exist or have drastically changed throughout the centuries, remembering these experiences viscerally. Virtual reality is a new tool that we can use to advance manuscript research, teaching, and outreach. But as scholars, how do we use this tool to describe manuscripts in virtual reality? How do we address the needs of different users including other scholars or non-specialists who will access these experiences of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts? What are the advantages and limits of these virtual interactions with books? This paper will discuss the use of virtual reality to encourage engagement with and appreciation of tangible and intangible heritage contained in manuscripts and the potentials of virtual reality as an innovative tool for embodied learning and group-led teaching.

Denva Gallant, Rice University

The book in the Middle Ages had an aura of authority that often superseded its contents, and its representation could offer symbolic value outside its function. The representation of the book in the late Middle Ages and its attendant and associative activity, reading, have prompted scholars to ask whether one can retrieve the social and personal habits of reading during the period through close looking at depictions of books and reading. Laurel Amtower, for instance, has argued that representations of reading in the late medieval Books of Hours drew attention to reading’s function as a mediator between the divine and profane worlds, while Jeffrey Hamburger has positioned depictions of reading within the so-called “cult of representation.” In this talk, I examine another dimension of depictions of books and reading in late medieval illuminated manuscripts: the ways representations of reading not only elaborated on the function of the book itself but also structured, organized and dictated the reader’s experience of the manuscripts. In particular, I look at representations of books and reading in passages from the Vitae patrum (The Lives of the Desert Fathers) and the vernacular translation, Le Vite de’ Santi Padri, which were recommended as reading for both monastics and the laity during the Middle Ages. When manuscripts of the Lives of the Desert Fathers are illuminated with inhabited and historiated initials, they not only mark the beginning of the lives (a guiding and reading device in itself) but also self-reflexively inform the way the text should be read.  In analyzing depictions of  books and reading in illustrated manuscripts of the Vitae patrum, I ask what representations of books in manuscripts might have taught their readers about how to read, and what they in turn can teach us about orality, listening, and reading in the late Middle Ages.

James Watts, Syracuse University

The image of the book, in all its various forms, has been a prominent feature of the art of literate cultures for 5,000 years. Books appear in portraits to cast their subjects as educated scholars. Specific books index the religious and intellectual allegiances of the people around them. Books appear in the hands of anonymous readers, often women, as idealized (“iconic”) depictions of reading, literature, education, and religion. In all these contexts, the image of the book serves to legitimize people, professions, ideas, and religions. Creation of the BASIRA database of books in Renaissance Art provides the opportunity to test such broad generalizations on an historically delimited and controlled database. This resource permits greater specificity in answering questions about how artists and their patrons used the image of books to depict themselves and their society, how their audiences (both literate and illiterate) were socialized to receive such images, and how such art may or may not reflect the actual use of books in mediating power relationships in Renaissance religion, society, and politics.

Lucy Freeman Sandler, New York University

Destruction of books has a long history in which visual representation plays a significant role. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance images of book destruction, especially by burning,  appeared in manuscript books themselves, as in turn did images of the saving, preservation, or miraculous rescue of books. After an introduction identifying the types of manuscripts in which such images appeared--the Moralized Bible, prayer books and breviaries,  university and civil law texts, and national chronicles--this paper will focus on illustrations of book destruction and salvage inspired by biblical accounts in Jeremiah, Maccabees, Acts, and the Apocalypse, especially images accompanied by pictorial and/or textual expositions.   

Allie Alvis, Winterthur Library

Medieval books are more than historical objects, they are potent – and elastic– symbols. Umberto Ecco’s Ten Little Middle Ages articulates the diversity of attitudes to and perceptions of the Medieval period, broadly defined. Megan L. Cook’s “Dirtbag Medievalism” hones this concept for the 21st century, describing an earnest, bombastic “kind of meta-medievalism, distilled through the internet and pop culture.” These frameworks speak to how shifting cultural values emphasize (and de-emphasize) parts of the Middle Ages to suit their goals, with books frequently being caught up in the mix, but rarely a focal point. Despite being relegated to supporting roles, the material forms of books specifically tell us a great deal not only about how non-medievalists conceptualize the period, but of how they understand book history in general.

Enter Pop Bibliography. Many things can be gained through considering how books as physical objects are represented in pop culture, from the big screen to the art for trading card games such as Magic: The Gathering. The framework of Pop Bibliography takes into account Ecco’s concept of the dream of the Middle Ages, and Cook’s concept of the distillation of history through today’s constantly-churning media milieu, to reverse-engineer the popular concept(s) of the “Old Book” in Western pop culture. This talk will delve into the origins of some of the historical sources of these concepts, and address how they speak to the fetishization of the book as an object in the digital age. It will further address the role of “Old Books” in cultivating consumer identities, using case studies from popular media.

Featured image: Image: Detail of Saint Jerome and a Canon Praying, Simon Marmion, ca. 1475-1480. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917, Inv. 1329.