A Comic Artist and an Art Historian Chat about Medieval Comics

Karrie Fransman (comic artist) asked Dr Robert Mills (Reader in Medieval Art, UCL) to provide some resources about medieval art. Bob is author of Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture (2005) and Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (2015), and his research interests include medieval visual culture, representations of pain and punishment, saints, gender and sexuality, animal studies, and translation. How can the world of comics be informed by medieval art, and how is our understanding of medieval culture illuminated by comics?

I am a comic artist and so I was wondering if you can you think of any kind of medieval formats used to tell visual stories (whether they are triptychs[1], stained glass or tapestries) and any kind of notable examples worth checking out.

Big question! First off, there’s a brief and accessible introduction to some of the different techniques employed by medieval artists to convey narrative on a web page for an exhibition at the Getty a few years back.

Important developments in narrative art are witnessed in illuminated manuscripts, many of which are easily accessible online. You could start by consulting an illustrated saint’s life, e.g. Matthew Paris’s Life of Edward the Confessor, which is available in an excellent online format including some basic captions describing what’s going on.


Matthew Paris’s Life of Edward the Confessor. England (London/Westminster), c. 1250-c. 1260. Cambridge University Library, MS Ee.3.59, f. 12v. [cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk]

Illustrated bibles convey the Gospel stories through narrative sequences of images. There are many examples you could consider, but a particular favourite of mine are the so-called thirteenth-century Bibles moralisées, which include a ‘moralizing’ sequence of texts and images alongside the biblical material. You’ll find a brief overview of how these books work here. An example in the British Library has been fully digitised.


The Oxford-Paris-London Bible moralisée. France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century. British Library, Harley MS 1527, f. 4v. [bl.uk]

For visual retellings of biblical stories on a more monumental scale, you could start with Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel, Padua (a.k.a. Scrovegni chapel), which make celebrated use of gesture to convey narrative content. For examples of surviving wall paintings on biblical and hagiographic themes in England, some of which are roughly contemporary with Giotto’s, see www.paintedchurch.org.


Scrovegni Chapel Frescoes. Giotto di Bondone. Italy (Padua), c. 1305. [artble.com]

For stained glass, I recommend taking a look at the Becket Miracle Windows at Canterbury Cathedral, which convey, often with great economy, the miracle recipients’ journeys from sickness to health. (You may also be interested in the Latin captions here, which, perhaps dissimilar to the way modern cartoon captions work, function as much as ‘authorizing’ gestures or visual talismans as devices for telling the story.) There’s also a short blog post about some of the windows here.


Stained glass window showing healing miracles at Canterbury Cathedral. [commons.wikimedia.org]

A fundamental starting point for understanding how visual stories were conveyed in other media such as embroidery and tapestry is the Bayeux Tapestry. There’s plenty of debate about it, but if you just want a taste of the format the website I’ve provided a link to here helpfully presents it in a form that allows you to scroll from left to right.


Bayeux Tapestry. [bayeux-tapestry.org.uk]

What are the most interesting or weird and wonderful examples of illuminated manuscripts you’d recommend looking at?

Take a look at some of the marginalia in illuminated manuscripts such as the Luttrell or Macclesfield Psalters. There’s a lively debate among medievalists about the functions and meanings of these images; if you want a taste of these discussions and an overview of the form, you could dip into Michael Camille’s classic essay Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (London: Reaktion, 1992). There are also some interesting posts about the weird and wonderful world of manuscript marginalia on the British Library’s ‘Medieval manuscripts blog’, e.g. here and here.


Marginalia from the Luttrell Psalter. N. England (Lincolnshire), 1325-1340. British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 145r. [bl.uk]

Are there any fantastic websites or art resources where I can see some of the best examples of medieval art?

In addition to links above, try: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts and Roman de la Rose digital library (high resolution reproductions of illuminated copies of this important allegorical poem).

Any other notable examples of visual storytelling from the era that you love?

I’ve always been quite a fan of sculpted depictions of the Last Judgment (for example, Gislebertus’s on the main portal at Autun), which convey the end of time (and so history) through dramatic means–edifying visual storytelling of a different kind. Illuminated apocalypse manuscripts are also worth a look in this context.


Gislebertus’s tympanum on the main portal of Cathedral of Saint-Lazare, Autun (1130-1145). Photo by Steven Zucker (2012). Some rights reserved. [flickr.com]

For imagery with a less obviously religious pretext (though still often with moralising implications) I love some of the imagery associated with retellings of or allusions to tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

See, for example, a discussion by Marian Bleeke of one particularly striking rendition of the Pygmalion story in a Roman de la Rose manuscript.[2]


[1] A triptych is a picture or relief carving on three panels, usually hinged together vertically and used as an altarpiece.


Arnau Bassa – Triptych with Madonna and Child with the Crucifixion and the Annunciation. Spain (Catalonia), between c. 1340 and c. 1348. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. [commons.wikimedia.org]


[2] Marian Bleeke, ‘Versions of Pygmalion in the Illuminated Roman de la Rose (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms. Douce 195): The Artist and the Work of Art’, Art History 33, no. 1 (2010): 28–53. [back]


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