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Picturing a World


Background landscapes in manuscript illuminations (and paintings of any era) fascinate me. More than the depiction of dramatic events, they make the past seem real. I found this one a couple of days ago in an elaborate three-part illustration of a battle, the construction of a church, and a crowned woman kneeling before a king. While all that is busily happening in the foreground, I want to wander on out to the village, the water, the windmill, and the towered city.

When I’m not exploring digitized manuscript art these days, I’m reading J. A. Baker’s extraordinary book, The Peregrine. Its opening paragraph begins at the ridge east of his home in coastal Essex:

“Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata.”

I almost laughed out loud two paragraphs later when he said, “Detailed descriptions of landscape are tedious.” Not when they are written with his skill!

The larger point, however, is that whether someone is writing about the habits of birds, or painting a scene from history, or narrating a story, to me a sense of place is a layer of meaning that enriches the whole.
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