October 2020 - November 2021
Evaluating the significance of Christine’s architectural iconography in The Book of the City of Ladies
The research focuses on a comparative study of all five known authorial manuscripts of Christine’s text that contain illuminations, held in libraries in Paris, London and Brussels.All images are attributed to a single illuminator, or more precisely, a single illuminator workshop, which is known as the Maître of the City of Ladies,because of their exclusive decoration of this group of manuscripts.
The workshop – noted for their particular attention to scenes of daily city life, domestic interiors and original approach to colour – was prolific during this period, executing illuminations not only for Christine, but also other writers and patrons.
Digital layering. Through a detailed design-led study of the illuminations supported by extensive historical research, the aim of this investigation is to identify the origins and significance of Christine’s architectural iconographic programme for her text.
Christine was inspired by her father’s patron King Charles V. She portrayed the king’s character and work in her ‘Book of the Deeds and Good Morals of the Wise King Charles V’ is a first-hand portrait of the king and his court, commissioned by the king’s brother, Philip the Bold of Burgundy. Promoting himself as a learned king, he commissioned translations of many Greek and Latin texts in French for the first time, therefore boosting the industry of illuminated manuscripts. Charles was also a builder king expanding the Paris city wall and moving his residence to the old fortress of the Louvre, repurposing its Falconry into the First Royal Library, to house his growing collection of manuscripts. The model of a building and the book in this double sculpture of the king and the queen become symbols of his legacy, and perhaps motivated Christine’s conflation of the book with the construction of an imaginary edifice.
Her text needs to be understood in connection to the turbulent times of the Hundred Years’ War and the inner conflicts of the royal family after the death of king Charles V. Her architectural allegory is not only highly political, but also diplomatic, in its support of the queen Isabeau of Bavaria as a regent, against King Charles VI’s uncles, who were claiming the throne after he became unfit to rule due to bouts of mental illness.
Undoubtedly, Christine’s drawing of her fictional city is influenced by her exposure to her adoptive Paris and contemporary walled structures, such as the Louvre.
Indeed, a close comparative study between architectural motifs in the illuminations and Viollet-le-Duc’s extensively illustrated dictionary of French medieval architecture reveals a close connection with contemporary styles.
Christine is thought of as a visual thinker and uses architecture as an underlying structure more of her texts. For instance, in her ‘Book of the Mutability of Fortune’, we find her reconstructing France’s recent history from the scenes painted on the walls of a grand chamber in the castle of Fortune.
But Christine was also clearly influenced by the allegorical use of architecture in other literary religious and secular works, such as City of God by St Augustine of Hippo, where he is also often depicted writing his celestial religious alternative to the earthly city.
In the illuminations of The Romance of the Rose, the very book she condemned as misogynistic, architecture becomes an entrapment of women, or even worse an expression of sexual violence. Christine’s conception of The Book of the City of Ladies is a direct corrective response to this text, but we argue that her empowering architectural iconography is also an antidote to the vulgarity of its offensive imagery.
While earlier depictions may be found of female figures (both historical and fictional) overseeing construction sites, such as Saint Hedwig and the fictional heroine Mélusine, Christine’s literary construction remains unique in its embodiment of the term ‘architecture’, and more so by its performance by the exclusively female characters of the book. She deftly uses the term to promote an intellectual relationship with building, while simultaneously claiming the empowering act of construction for women.
Removing the human figures from the illuminations and completing in the ‘shadows’ left behind reveals the full architectural background. This facilitated a direct analysis and cross-referencing of the architectural motifs and structures establishing a link between the illuminations and contemporary Parisian medieval architecture.
The different versions of each illumination were superimposed to create a series of composite images.
Using a displacement map, a three-dimensional digital model of the composite image was created, which was animated to reveal its spatiality.
Through a careful process of testing the resulting three digital models were 3D printed in colour.
There are strong similarities and consistency between the sizes of the human figures in the illuminations. This points towards the existence of a template underpinning the composition, similar to the drawings appearing in Villard de Honnecourt sketchbook.
In Christine’s dream-vision the three virtues – Reason, Rectitude and Justice – announce that she has been chosen to build a city to protect women and take turns to assist her with a particular task. Reason helps Christine to set the foundations; Rectitude to erect the high temples, palaces and houses; and Justice to embellish the city with gold.
‘In fabricis parietum atquetectorum Graeci inventorem Daedalum asserunt. Iste enim primus didicisse fabricam a Minerva dicitur. Fabros autem sive artifices Graeci τ’εκτονες vocant, id est structores. Architecti autem caementarii sunt qui disponunt infundamentis. Unde et Apostolus de sementipso: Quasi sapiens, inquit, architectus fundamentum psui… Aedificiorum partes sunt tres: dispositio, constructio, venustas. Dispositio est areae vel solii et fundamentorum descriptio. Constructio est laterum et altitudinis aedificatio… Venustas est quidquid illud ornamenti et decoris causa aedificiis additur.’
This division matches the definition of the word ‘architect’ and her work as it appears in Isidore of Seville’s encyclopaedia, which was the standard mediaeval writer compendium. Isidore defines three parts in the art of building: Dispositio, laying the foundations, Constructio, raising the height of the buildings, and Venustas, embellishment.
'Thus Christine of Pisan appears the first on French soil to write of ‘architecteur’, which epithet she applies to King Charles V together with ‘deviseur’ and ‘ordeneur’ of buildings (III, 2).'
Additionally, according to architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, Christine is the first writer to introduce the word ‘architect’ in French. She uses the term ‘architecteur’ as a translation of Vitruvius’s Latin term ‘architectus’, after a long hiatus of the term becoming neglected, forgotten and misused during the Middle Ages.
Therefore, we suggest that Christine’s conception of the iconographic programme, but also the structure of her text is based on the performative enactment of her re-invention of the word ‘architect’.
Christine’s literary construction, is unique in its embodiment of the term ‘architecture’ and more so by its performance by the exclusively female characters of the book. She deftly uses the term to promote an intellectual relationship with building, while simultaneously claiming the empowering act of construction for women. The three virtues become Christine’s trinity alter ego, with who she engages in an inner dialogue. Through this allegorical trope, she is able to articulate the complex interplay between self-doubt and her decisive, often polemical, defence of women. Looking closely, the figure assisting Christine is indeed an amalgam of the three virtues. Her clothing references the attire of a Queen, but she is also perhaps an impersonation of ‘architecture’, passing all knowledge to her disciple, Christine the architect.