“In principio erat verbum” — Phonocentricity in Christian Art


HT: the Rev’d Sem. Stefan M. Gramenz


“According to St. Augustine, God ‘spoke’ the universe during the Creation, part of a strong phonocentric bias through which commentators expressed the force of the Logos in human society. This is nowhere clearer in the art of the period than in the embellishment of the voice of the Logos itself in the illustration of the Bible. The opening of St. John’s Gospel in the late-twelfth-century Arnstein Bible is a good example, showing the Evangelist slotted into the swirling trellis which makes up the words ‘In principio‘ and writing the same with his calamus on a small sheet of vellum on his desk. Despite the appearance of the gold book which the Christ-Logos holds above the Evangelist’s head and although the latter does not seem to be represented as ‘talking’, John’s urgent gesture of declamatio, which we have seen in other examples, indicates that it is the voice of the Logos that this writing conveys. Indeed, looking more closely, we can see that his own symbol, the eagle, acts like the dove of the Holy Spirit inspiring with Holy Writ, which is being dictated by God in the half-circle above. That God is the dictator under whom holy men write, was first noted by Alcuin and it is significant that in this image the relationship is specified in an oral context. The spirit imparts ‘The Word’ not to John’s ear as was usual, but to his mouth. In his letter prefacing the Commentary to St. John’s Gospel, Alcuin distinguished him as the only one of the Evangelists to teach not by writing, but through word of mouth. So, unlike the other three Gospel frontispieces in this Bible, John’s depicts the Word in its true sense, not written (on the desk) or seen (visually magnified in the subtle artistry of the decorated letters of the whole) but as actively spoken in order to exemplify the Incarnation: In principio erat verbum.


Michael Camille, “Seeing and Reading: Some Visual Implications of Medieval Literacy and Illiteracy.” Art History, vol. 8 no. 1 (26-49)