In the Gloom, the Gold Gathers the Light Against It 

Geoffrey Babbitt

I am drawn to illuminated manuscripts.


One of my favorite manuscript stories goes back to sixth century Ireland, and it concerns a psalter known as The Cathach of St. Columba. Although the psalter bears the name of St. Columba, it is actually named after the copy Columba made of a manuscript that had been loaned to him by St. Finnian. And therein lies the scandal.

St. Finnian had recently returned from Rome, where the Pope himself had given Finnian a new, superior Latin translation of the Psalms. Because Finnian was friends with Columba and admired his scholarship, the older saint let the younger one borrow it. The new book gripped Columba intensely as he read it, so he copied it without Finnian's permission.

Just before Columba had finished his clandestine task, a messenger sent by Finnian to collect the psalter arrived at St. Columba's church.

The messenger, a young boy, peered into the church through a keyhole and witnessed a miracle. The five fingers on St. Columba's hand were like long candle flames, and from them emanated bright beams that filled the church with light.

As Columba luminously transcribed, his crane—not an uncommon pet for monks of the time—thrust his beak through the keyhole, plucking out the eye of the young voyeur. Blood leaked from his dark orbital socket. The eyeball—legend has it— dangled on his cheek. The boy went crying to St. Finnian, who performed his own miracle and restored the boy's eye.

St. Finnian was so angry at St. Columba for his textual thievery that their dispute eventually culminated in the Battle of Cúl Drebene in 561 (cathach means "battler"). Many men were killed in the battle, and Adomnán of Iona tells us that St. Columba was excommunicated for his role in it. Columba left Ireland. Some sources say that he exiled himself as atonement for the battle and went on a mission to Scotland, converting the Picts. It was his goal to save more lives than had been lost in battle.

Columba might have used The Cathach of St. Columba as a conversion tool.




Language and light share familiar divine associations.


"God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." God's speech act makes light and thereby introduces order.

Or as Harold Bloom pithily puts it, "God teaches Himself His own Name, and so begins creation."

Augustine openly reflects on the beginning of the Gospel of John: "You call us, therefore, to understand the Word, God who is with you God... That word is spoken eternally, and by it all things are uttered eternally... You do not cause it to exist other than by speaking."




The Psalms say, "The commands of the Lord are radiant, / giving light to the eyes."

John's gospel says, "the Word was God."

The First Letter of John says, "God is light."




One could deem St. Columba's copying unethical. He acts without St. Finnian's permission, and the act of copying destroys the psalter's value, which lay in its uniqueness to Ireland. Retelling the story for its basic impact, an essay on literary property in a 1908 issue of The Michigan Law Review finds Columba in the wrong, ending its rendition with the king's memorable decision: "To every cow her calf; to every book its copy." And so the crown sides with Finnian.

And yet, divine light accompanies Columba because God sanctions the saint as he works. So regardless of whether he commits a transgression, what he does is endorsed by divine will and is, therefore, righteous. The ground we have strayed onto is close to Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical. Like Abraham, St. Columba oversteps the ethical realm altogether by placing his telos higher—in the absolute, in what pleases God.

Now consider the messenger boy. Although he is right to follow his master's instructions dutifully, he is, in some larger sense, wrong for intruding upon a miracle. His punishment strikes us as fair and unfair because it is both—thus must he suffer the loss of an eye but also have it restored.

In a sixteenth century version of the Cathach story, the loss of the boy's eye is not the result of a crane's whim but God's decree. Columba gives permission to the crane to pluck out the young boy's eye, so long as God does not object. God does not.




In another story strikingly similar to ours, a young boy—not a messenger, a pupil perhaps—spies on the saint through a keyhole while he emits a celestial radiance. Columba had forbidden the boy to visit his lodgings that evening. The next day, he rebukes the child: "If I had not in that instant prayed for your sake, you would have dropped dead by the door or else your eyes would have been torn from their sockets. But the Lord spared you this time because of my intercession."  




Presence and proximity give way to increasing distance.

In the beginning, God speaks to humankind regularly. He expels from Paradise, forms covenants, gives instructions, warns, tells the future, cryptically explains his identity, instills fear, orders Moses to remove his sandals. Etc.

God's interactions, however, gradually become mediated. Ezekiel, for example, eats a scroll containing God's decree. It tastes as sweet as honey. Later the prophet is struck silent and becomes a vessel for divine speech.  God tells him: "I will make your tongue stick to your palate so that you will be dumb...  Only when I speak with you and open your mouth, shall you say to them: Thus says the Lord God!"

In the Christian Testament, Jesus' first gift to humanity is his presence. He is God in the medium of human flesh. John relates the mystery of incarnation by invoking God's associations with language and light: "And the Word became flesh." And later Jesus explains the significance of his human presence through the symbol of light: "I am the light of the world."

After his ascension, he leaves behind another presence. The spirit presides, and the calling cards of the divine are made manifest: "Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were filled with the holy spirit and began to speak in different tongues."

Distance increases.




In the apocalyptic Revelation, Jesus' return is not only announced by the spectacular seven seals and the seven angels trumpeting but also by the elect having their names written in the Lamb's Book of Life. The calling card returns too—their heads are divinely inscribed upon: "They will look upon his face, and his name will be on their foreheads."

The name whose speaking created the world will be etched upon the heads of the saved when they see God. Then scripture ends.

The gap between humanity and the divine expands.




For an abyss is a condition of mysticism.

Language and light are both easily associable with the divine, but they share a more significant commonality—they are both symptomatic of God's widening distance from believers. That they are rife with the potential to participate in mysticism is evidence.

Gershom Scholem explains that there are stages through which a religion must pass before mysticism becomes possible. "The first stage," he writes, "represents the world as being full of gods whom man encounters at every step and whose presence can be experienced without recourse to ecstatic meditation."

In the second stage, "Man becomes aware of a fundamental duality, of a vast gulf which can be crossed by nothing but the voice; the voice of God, directing and law-giving in His revelation, and the voice of man in prayer." God's speech points to distance. Within Ezekiel's narrative, for example, God's thunderous voice issuing forth from the dumb-stricken prophet is dramatic evidence of the divine crossing a vast gulf.

The distinction between the second stage and the third can be tricky. The story is orally transmitted from believer to believer. This epoch becomes the next. A worshipper holds the written text, reading the decree given by a voice that has since become inaudible. The stage of voice slips into the subsequent one.

Scholem describes the third stage in a religion as coinciding with "what may be called the romantic period." Here mysticism can begin, not by denying the abyss between humankind and God but by recognizing it. Scholem adds that "from there it proceeds to a quest for the secret that will close it in, the hidden path that will span it... in a new upsurge of religious consciousness." So the mystical drive is to achieve unity after unity has been lost.




Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, St. Teresa, Nahmanides, Richard Rolle, St. Bonaventure, anonymous monk of The Cloud of Unknowing, Hildegard of Bingen, Walter Hilton, St. John of the Cross, Margery Kempe, Moses de Leon, Julian of Norwhich, Isaac Luria Arizal, etc. Mysticism thrives during middle and late medievalism through the very early Renaissance.

The chasm's prevalence makes the zeitgeist eager to cross it.  




There is a simpler way in which language and light provide evidence of an abyss: they are metaphors. Or more accurately, they are the vehicles in a metaphor whose common tenor is God.

"The Word was God." "God is light." These statements do more than deal in abstract terms. Drawing comparisons makes something happen. The comparisons conduct a transfer. "Metaphor" literally means, "to bear across." Between the terms in which a metaphorical comparison is made, a gap resides. The task of the metaphor is to bridge the terms on either side of the divide and to cross the gap. In other words, the vehicle—to extend the metaphor within "metaphor"—carries its cargo of signification across the gap and unloads its signifying associations upon the tenor. The vehicle is not arbitrarily named, after all. It gets us somewhere. In this case, "light" and "Word" aim to get one back to God, to cross the abyss, and they do so by enhancing our understanding of the divine.




By equating the Word with God, we might make several associations, starting by taking the "Word" simply as a privileged instance of language. The comparison suggests, quite basically, that God—however incomprehensible—is meaningful. He might even constitute the meaning—the basis on which believers come to understand their lives and their lives' purposes.

Of course, post-structural theory has taught us well that signification is predicated upon absence. When referring, one substitutes the term of reference for the referent itself. So the word also suggests the removal of its referent. Similarly, God is the significance whose presence cannot be witnessed or verified and so remains mysterious.




The knowledge transmitted by a text is often figured as light.

Psalms: "The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple."

Proverbs: "For these commands are a lamp, / this teaching is a light."

Light and language allow and advance our understanding. Light enables vision, which is the primary sense with which we understand the world. The sun is like God in its benevolence of enabling all life. But it is also like language in its mysteriousness. While the sun's emanations are ever present, the source evades our direct study; the intensity of its brilliance overwhelms the eye's capacity to receive images.

The sun helps us better see everything but itself.




In Poetics, Aristotle classifies four kinds of metaphors. He devotes the lengthiest description to the final kind, the analogical metaphor, "where B stands in relation to A as D does to C; one can then mention D instead of B, and vice versa." A/B = C/D. The payoff of an analogical metaphor—as opposed to the equational variety, e.g. "God is light"—is that a comparison of relations (or sets of relations) is made rather than a mere comparison of things.

"God is the word" is an analogical metaphor waiting to be recognized as such: "a worshipper stands in relation to God as a reader does to the word." Following suit, "God is light" might better be understood as "God is to a worshipper as light is to a viewer." If "worshipper," "reader," and "viewer" supply overly specific roles to the missing terms, we might simply offer "one"—in which case, our metaphors propose, "God is to one as the word is" and "God is to one as light is."




The introduction of a human component to the metaphors changes the comparisons considerably. They are now more forthright about what was always the case: they purport to say less about God than they do about believers' ways of understanding him. In other words, by introducing the implied person, we now have the subject by whose understanding the comparison is warranted in the first place.




Let us consider the believer in a medieval context.

Let's make our believer St. Finnian's messenger, the boy enucleated by a crane. Before he looks into the keyhole, his mind is laden with history's associations of text and light. He understands the value of his master's psalter, especially since it was a gift from the Vatican. He might even have heard Finnian read from the new translation, in awe of its poetry: "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, / out of the mud and mire; / he set my feet on a rock / and gave me a firm place to stand. // He put a new song in my mouth, / a hymn of praise to our God." That the boy, as a messenger, was acting in the capacity of a bridge between two scholars might have heightened his awareness of textual power.

And as for light, one need only consider the number of candles and lanterns necessary to import indoors a scrap of the brilliance from an ordinary morning. In his beautiful last book, Gustaf Sobin concludes from his study of medieval archeological evidence that dwellings were generally not well lit—a fact which must have only reinforced a sense of light's sacredness. He writes, "With our rooms abundantly lit, each night, by fluorescent and incandescent lighting, it's hard to imagine, today, those tiny little aureoles of radiance—shed by candles, candelabra, lanterns—that went to light, once, a typical medieval household. Present-day archeological evidence, however, only goes to confirm the extreme paucity of such illumination. Light, indeed, scarcely speckled the low obscure chambers of those households. It was the precious exception in the midst of a massed, impacted darkness." Churches, he continues, were the exception. By comparison, they were much better lit—by many, many thin candles.

Sobin argues that the scarcity of light, by today's standards, must have resulted in the "indissociability of... the utilitarian from the sacramental." In other words, "God is light," to the medieval mind, must have seemed a metaphor ever on the cusp of realizing itself.




Plotinus sees physical light as a metaphor for the higher Metaphysical light. But Augustine does not: "This light itself is one, and all those are one who see it and love it."




It should not be surprising, then, that the messenger might have seen the incandescent manifestation of God while Columba transcribed his message.




Columba is not the author of the text, let alone of the translation. So the celestial light that attends him is not evidence of divinely inspired creativity. The Psalms themselves figure importantly somehow, but holy text alone does not explain the miracle either. After all, if Columba were merely reading the text, we would not expect his fingers to become light.

The inscription elicits the miracle. St. Columba acts as a scribe, and his fingers become divine beams. The image is revealing. To the medieval mind, etching ink onto vellum could occasion a miracle.




Manuscript. Written by hand. Scribes, artists, and bookbinders—not authors—make illuminated manuscripts what they are. Even if it contained the language of some original author or translator, the manuscript itself would still primarily be the handiwork of a scribe, or several.

Scribes keep God's speech acts going.




In the accounts I have read of St. Columba's miracle, none is very specific about his hand.

His fingers shine like long candle flames, yes, and their light fills the church. Okay, but which hand? How does he manage the quill, or reed, pen with fingers made of light? Moreover, if his luminous hand grips the pen, then the fingers would all point toward the page he writes upon, light concentrating downward rather than emanating broadly enough to fill a church. And if it had produced enough light, wouldn't his hand have brightly blinded his view of the page? Perhaps, then, his right hand is open above the unguided pen as it obeys his will, seeming to transcribe of its own accord below his outstretched fingers. But such a phenomenon would certainly deserve mention in surviving accounts, which it doesn't get.

The only source I've encountered that concerns itself with the miracle's logistics is, quite fittingly, the aforementioned Michigan Law Review article: "[St. Columba] began the piratical work with his right hand by the light which miraculously radiated from his left." But while offering a way around a conflict between tasks potentially too great for a single hand, such a practical resolution destroys the potency of the image.

Only the hand that inscribes is sufficient to shine.




The Cathach of Columba is minimally embellished. It has enlarged, decorated (but not historiated) initials, many of which transition, typically, to the regular script size by way of a diminuendo—a series of progressively smaller letters. The psalter contains no gold or border decorations. And the script is pleasing, quite simply, in its characteristic pre-Carolingian insular style. Compared with a sumptuously illuminated manuscript commissioned by an emperor, the Cathach is austere. And yet, it too has little embellishes—a cross on the back of a flower curling into a miniscule G's open tail here, a whale's fin fanning off an O there. A T that, at first glance, looks like a labrys without a handle—the cross segment curving into seahorse-like creatures with hummingbird beaks sucking nectar from the vertical segment's center.




In his Manuscript Illumination from The British Library Guide series, preeminent manuscript scholar Christopher de Hamel organizes his book by answering three fundamental questions, the first of which revolves around why manuscripts were illuminated. De Hamel focuses on headings, initials, and pictures, and his treatments of each share a common emphasis—practical function.

Each effectively enhances readability. Headings contribute to a manuscript's visual scheme of organization and help the reader distinguish between different degrees of importance. Initials privilege primacy and thereby aid in communicating the text's sense of hierarchy. The size and elaborateness of an initial might also affect the reader's pace and rhythm. Pictures, although they seldom "illustrate" scenes from the text in today's conception of the term, assist the reader in identifying figures from the text. For instance, a biblical passage about Isaiah might be accompanied by an illustration of his martyrdom, even if the text were not concerned with that event. But since he was memorably sawed in half, the depiction would help a reader call him to mind. Anyone devoted to memorizing passages from the Bible would find mnemonic value in pictures. And missionaries found illustrations to be powerful tools of conversion because they enhanced the vividness of descriptions. And even more generally, they helped the reader—who might have fit anywhere along the spectrum of literacy—better understand the text.

De Hamel sums up the function of illustrations: "They were not simply idle decoration, but furnished one of the basic uses of the book." In short, illuminations make manuscripts more readable.




But pragmatics alone will not do. Behind any explanation based on function lies the bookmaker's sense that the text was worthy of the illuminations and craftsmanship that would make it more readable. Bookmakers strengthened texts' efficacy and impact because they were worth the extra efforts to do so.

G with a cross. An O's whale fin. Double battle-ax blade T.  These illuminations do not merely help text along—they praise it.




Christopher de Hamel explores reasons other than functionality for why manuscripts were illuminated. For example, in A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, he ends his chapter on books commissioned by emperors by commenting on the Gospel Book of Henry the Lion: "It is a book flashing with gold... and it was intended to symbolize extreme wealth and power... even today imperial treasure manuscripts are still very, very expensive. That is the reason why they were made." In other words, illuminated manuscripts were not only outlets for wealth; they were also expressions of it. Of course, wealth and sacredness do not tend to go hand in hand, which is why many manuscripts made for the purpose of expressing imperial grandeur can register as perfidious. The Gospel Book, de Hamel tells us, opens with a lavish chrysographic display featuring "a dedication leaf in burnished gold capitals beginning 'Aurea testatur' ('it is witnessed in gold'—as if gold alone adds credibility)." Indeed not.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger diagnoses a parallel phenomenon in the history of oil painting. He observes that the historical or mythological picture was "the highest category in oil painting," in part, because it used high culture as an idealized method of expressing the owner's nobility. Berger continues, "Sometimes the whole mythological scene functions like a garment held out for the spectator-owner to put his arms into and wear. The fact that the scene is substantial, and yet, behind its substantiality, empty, facilitates the 'wearing' of it." So too do certain imperial manuscripts convey vacuity in spite of their aureate magnificence.




Gold could also serve a more substantial purpose for illumination; De Hamel notes that during the age of medieval manuscripts "gold was the material of the kingdom of Heaven," which is why it was frequently used "for showing what is not seen in normal sight, like haloes." Although it was used secularly—for instance, in medical or legal reference books—gold was commonly used in religious texts to create a heavenly ambience. It was applied in the form of either a paint-like solution or a thinly beaten gold leaf laid upon an adhesive. Gold became more and more widespread as an illuminative material. In a common 15th century Book of Hours, there would have been gold on nearly every page. And in earlier centuries if gold supply happened to be low, a goldbeater might melt antique artifacts or pound coins until they were so exceedingly thin that they almost seemed to lack the dimension of thickness entirely.

The most important technological advance in manuscript gilding, however, came in the early thirteenth century, when illuminators found a way to create a celestial effect. They began applying gesso before laying the gold. Gesso is a chalky substance, usually made of calcium hydroxide, ground up clay, or gypsum. When the gilder was ready to use the gesso, he would mix it into a cohesive solution—essentially a plaster of Paris—and then apply it to the page. Once the gesso fully dried, its surface was ever so slightly raised above the plain of the page. The gold was then laid onto the dried gesso and burnished to a high shine with a smooth, rounded tool called a "dog's tooth." Undoubtedly, the earliest of such tools were in fact made from canine teeth. The effect of burnished gold is stunning: the page scintillates as either the page or the reader moves.

Burnished gold epitomizes the illuminating impulse.




Of several Gospel Books that had been commissioned by Otto III and inherited by Henry II, de Hamel writes that they contain "very many pages of miniatures painted on highly burnished gold backgrounds which really flash."

His use of "really" strikes me as the same "really" that we commonly hear in advertisements for toys: for a light saber that "really lights up" or for a doll that "really cries when she needs to be fed." De Hamel's normal scholarly reserve is betrayed by his excitement, which must be why he became a scholar in the first place. At a certain point, no argument or appeal to esoteric learning can better convey a manuscript's impressiveness than the pure enthusiasm it merits. The flashing light appeals to something basic, something fundamental.




A young man named George Smith was fortunate enough to be a curator of the British Museum in the 1870s when the eleven tablets containing The Epic of Gilgamesh were sent there, twenty years after archeologist Hormuzd Rassam had unearthed them. Smith was reportedly "electrified when he came upon the Noah-like Utanapishtim's account of the Flood. 'I am the first man to read that after two thousand years of oblivion,' he exclaimed, and, according to his associate E.A.W. Budge, 'he jumped up and rushed about the room in a state of great excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself!'"




Behind the best illuminated manuscripts lies the sense that a scribe or an illuminator might have broken out into light during its making.


Now imagine the sensation for a medieval reader—the implied term from our analogical metaphor—encountering an illuminated Book of Hours for the first time. The pages with burnished gold shimmer and glare a mercurial sheen as they turn. When the gold fully catches the light—sun through a window—it reflects off the page and into the reader's eyes, which might, as a reflex, squint to shield retinas momentarily overwhelmed by the brightness of the glint. With eyes momentarily closed, the undersides of the eyelids would seem thin as they glowed red-yellow, as if the text blazed its benevolence about the face. Eyes open again: the hologrammatic page conducts light across its surface. The light of the text, the good knowledge it imparts, becomes a physical fact. The visual becomes visionary, the book momentarily a site of communion. The word is God, who is light, who is at hand.