Gearhart: Theophilus´ ,On Diverse Arts’ and the Medieval Monastic Artisan
Since the early nineteenth century, a romantic myth has existed that casts the medieval artist as a humble craftsman, working in pious anonymity, believing himself to be but an instrument of God’s will. The medieval artisan has long provided a foil, either negatively or positively valenced, to the fame-seeking artist of the Renaissance. Even as master narratives of art and progress have been exploded, even as the category of “genius” has received sustained critique, the myth of the medieval artist has lingered on, serving in multiple narratives. However incomplete and inaccurate our idea of the monastic artist may be, like most myths, it is not wholly without foundation. One of its primary sources is the early twelfth-century tract On Diverse Arts, the only complete treatise on the production of religious art that survives from the Middle Ages. Its author writes anonymously, under a Greek pseudonym connoting his piety as Theophilus, “the Lover of God,” and he opens his text with a statement of his humility. It is not known just who Theophilus was, but a line added in one of the twelfth-century manuscripts identifies him as “Roger.” This may be a well-known artisan-monk of the Benedictine abbey of Helmarshausen.
Theophilus’ On Diverse Arts is the only treatise on art that survives from the Middle Ages. Written in the twelfth century, the text gives instructions for the production of the liturgical arts in three books on painting, glass, and metalwork, each introduced by a prologue. Although this book has been used extensively for pieces of technical information, I argue that it is an integrated work and should be considered as such. In a narrative which runs through both the prologues and instructions of the book, Theophilus creates a persona of the artist - a part of a defense for the production of luxury arts in the monastery. By closely examining the manuscripts of Theophilus’ text in conjunction with the surviving objects and textual sources on artists, my dissertation reconsiders the category of the monastic artisan and the conditions of artistic production in the twelfth-century monastery.