Our Holy St. Matthew of the Sandwich Board

There are two major types of historical art I like

  • The really good stuff, about which I am really picky, and
  • The really awful stuff.  It gets bonus points if it is medieval, and it usually is.

Hence, Vampire Monkey Christ.  I giggle every time I look at it.  Can it really be as awful as I remember?  Yup.

Book of Durrow Carpet Page

Carpet Page from the Book of Durrow, 7th century, England

But the Vampire Monkey Christ belt buckle was made by someone without artistic skill.  The Book of Durrow, however, was created by a 7th century English monk whose job it was to copy and illustrate manuscripts.

Medieval Art

Medieval artwork was highly abstract.  That’s why you see so much knotwork, stylized animal forms, and triquetras* (those spiraling three armed shapes featured here).  The image at right is a page from the Book of Durrow, clearly made by someone who has invested a lot of time and energy into learning his craft.

But sometimes these monks are called forth to do something like an actual human being, and then we start getting into trouble.

The Book of Durrow is a gospel book.  Since hand copying books was extremely time-consuming, and the Bible is actually a fairly big book (often printed deceptively small today on overly thin paper), often only the four gospel books would be copied.  The Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only books describing Jesus’s life and directly cover his teachings.  As such, they are the most important books, and they are compiled into gospel books.

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St. Matthew

So, one day, a monk is tasked with illustrating St. Matthew.  He’s a talented artist.  He respects the saint immensely.  He’s got plenty of time.  What could go wrong?

St. Matthew, Book of Durrow

By Meister des Book of Durrow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is what can go wrong.

The knotwork’s great.  Heck, the checkerboard pattern on the body is neat and even.  St . Matthew himself, on the other hand…

I drew people like this when I was four: head, long body, tiny feet pointing to the right, no arms.  People were primarily identified by size (indicating parent or child, for example) and hair style.  St. Matthew’s hairstyle roughly approximates how I drew Mom’s, because it was the 70s and her hair was huge.

How Did This Happen?

You see, while writing gospel books is very rewarding, the pay is crap.  As such, St. Matthew had to moonlight as a sandwich board.  I’m not quite sure what his employer was selling, however. Maybe checkerboards.  That’s ok.  No one could read anyway.

The body shape is presumably a cloak.  Now, while medieval artwork rarely even approaches realism, it frequently at least hints that clothes have some form under them.  Not here.  I have to wonder if the poor monk didn’t find a post-it note on his bench one day with directions saying something like “STMATTHEWINCLOAKNEEDIMAGEBYFRIDAYKTHXBYE”.

Incidentally, and I am not making this up, Europe had not yet invented spaces between words.  Or lower case.  Or punctuation.  Or the letter Y, but I cheated on the last in some hope of the above actually being read.  I’m only taking a joke so far.

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So our monk gave us a great big head, as if we could recognize St. Matthew from it, and the requested cloak.  And then, on account of this being a very clever monk, it occurred to him that it would look sooo much more like a person if he actually had feet, rather than the cloak hanging all the way to the non-existent ground.

And the one who suffers most? St. Matthew himself, who, by the look on his face, is clearly quite distressed by the whole situation.  Or he’s cold.  Or he’s tired of holding the damn sandwich board.

*Dear Spellchecker: When I type “triquetra,” I do not mean “briquettes.”  It’s OK to admit you just don’t understand the word.  No need to try looking clever.  kthxbye

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