This week’s Medieval Materiality post focuses on the writings of a German Benedictine monk from the twelfth century. Although his actual name is unknown, as he wrote under the pseudonym Theophilus, his work De Diversis Artibus (The Various Arts) has garnered incredible fame for this medieval author, especially from scholars of medieval art. Despite the fact that the text and its author originated in Germany, attention to painterly details in medieval Italian frescoes reveal that the artistic practices which Theophilus codified were familiar to medieval artists from different geographical areas. Theophilus’ work is significant because it gives greater agency to the more minute actions taken by medieval painters, the significance of whose activities are often ignored because their names are unknown. Such expressive actions, as simple as the care given to the highlights on a figure’s face, not only provide opportunities to study the elusive and seemingly invisible “medieval artist” but also heighten the contemporary viewer’s appreciation of the care given to the manipulation and control of various media used throughout the medieval era.
What follows is a section from C.R. Dodwell’s 1961 translation of De Diversis Artibus, wherein Theophilus educates the reader – or artist – on the processes one must take to apply “The First Highlight.” Images and details of frescoes from three Italian programs are provided for you to compare against Theophilus’ dictation.
“After this, with the plain flesh colour mix ground flake-white and prepare the colour which is called the highlight. With this you will paint the eyebrows, the length of the nose, on each side above the openings of the nostrils, the fine lines around the eyes, below the temples, above the chin, near the nostrils, and on each side of the mouth, the upper forehead, between the wrinkles of the forehead – sparingly, the neck in the middle, around the ears, around the relief of the hands and feet and the centre of the highest relief of the hands, feet and arms.”
Theophilus. De Diversis Artibus. C.R. Dodwell, trans. (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1961).
Gearhart, Heidi C. Theophilus and the Theory and Practice of Medieval Art. (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017).
Detail, Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy 1303-05, fresco.
Giotto, Massacre of the Innocents, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy 1303-05, fresco.
Annunciation Fragment, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, Italy, 8th century, fresco.
Detail, Pietro Cavallini, St. James the Greater in The Last Judgement, Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome, Italy, 1293, fresco.