En depintrix (or Ende pintrix) et Dei aiutrix. “En (or Ende) God’s helper and picture-maker.” Ende’s signature appears on the colophon of the so-called Beato de Gerona like a flash of lightning in a calm sky out of the darkness of those times. She is in fact the first woman “artist” who leaves an explicit and obvious mark of herself in the history of western Europe. We find ourselves in the kingdom of León in northern Spain––and more precisely in the monastery of San Salvador di Tábara––along a provisional and dangerous frontier that armed Christians were slowly and courageously pushing south. San Salvador is situated near the course of the great river Douro, which at that time (tenth century) constituted the border with al-Andaluz, the Islamic domain.
Tábara is a fortified tower, “tall and made of stone,” complete with a great scriptorium where several monks copy and illustrate various codes, among them the most precious and beautiful of the Medieval period: the Beati, a commentary on John’s Apocalypse that took the name of its author, Beato de Liébana. He was a Mozarab monk, original and full of energy who lived in Oviedo in the eighth century and became quite popular among theologians, religious and even powerful laymen in the research of texts and traditions upon which to establish their fragile cultural and political identity. The book of Beato, an authentic guide and source of inspiration for the Christian resistance, was continuously copied until the eighth century by monks who interpreted their intellectual function as a sacrifice, both a struggle and gift from God. At least two among the first and most precious of these codes came from Tábara itself, a center of a true and proper school of calligraphy and the miniature artistic style that flourished until almost the year 1000, and through which we have the fortune of knowing who the main protagonists were: Magius, Emeterius, Senior and, of course, En. Of the latter little is known other than she must have been important and esteemed enough to have written her name on the last page of the Beato de Gerona (the name derives from the cathedral in Gerona where the book was preserved from the eleventh century onward), after the grand “omega” but before that of her “colleagues” given the task of collaborating with her to finish the code. The omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and the conclusion of the text. That is, the name Emeterius “monk and presbyterate” appeared for the miniatures and Senior “presbyterate” for the calligraphy.
Who was this woman? The name “En”, which perhaps derives from the Germanic “Haim”, does not seem to have been widely used in Spain. According to a great number of studies she was from León or thereabouts and the intricate references to Mozarab and even Islamic art in many of her wonderful miniatures offers evidence of this claim. The depiction of the “woman seated on the scarlet-colored beast” (Apocalypse 17:3) is an example of this. It is a powerful and original image that fills the entire page, where the great and prideful prostitute raises the cup of her lewdness high over her head and the tree in front in its round foliage and intricate trunk harkens back to Islamic styles. Even the mythical Simurgh (the Sassanian bird that lives in the tree of all seeds) and the knight with the Arab face who conquers the serpent are unique figures in the history of the Spanish miniature style. But they are documented in ivory in Cordoba and among the imaginary characters painted on the ceiling of the Palatine chapel in Palermo in the twelfth century. Elsewhere, En or her predecessors and sources of inspiration, clients and colleagues display a competency that goes beyond canonical texts. For example, only in the apocryphal gospels does the episode surrounding Herod’s attempted suicide appear alongside the subjects dedicated to the life of Christ, which at that time (975) made up the widest array of pictures on that theme ever compiled in Spain––and indeed the antecedent to Romanesque art. The Crucifixion is especially extraordinary in its extremely vivid polychromy, complete with tituli (the captions that allow for the identification of each character) and a rare depiction of the sepulcher. The Majesty of Christ is instead based on Carolingian models, already found in prior copies of the Beati.
Such theological and cultural richness naturally makes one speculate that En was a nun, a fellow sister selected by Emeterius to assist in this great undertaking in honor of God. To provide a Beato with miniatures was indeed costly work, and difficult as it was lengthy. And that of which we are speaking now was absolutely one of the finest. It had 284 parchment pages and 115 pictures, many of them full length pages, pictures in tempura with a singular chromatic richness, greater than all other codes in the tenth century Spain containing miniatures.
Yet the monastery at Tábara where at that time around six hundred monks resided did not have a female section. Where then did this talented artist come from? Perhaps from some other monastery located near the Asturias––such as Santa Maria la Real de Piesca, known for the “artist” already famous there but of whom little trace is left. Or it could be as John Williams, the great expert and scholar of Medieval Spanish miniature style theorizes. En would have had to have been a local noble woman. Maybe she was from Leòn or Gallega, or was even a widow with no heirs who decided to dedicate herself to that precious book not only as an artist and executor, but as a sponsor as well, providing the abbot of Tábara the appropriate economic means needed to render it worthy and spectacular. A work worthy in the eyes of God, of which En could have well proclaimed herself “helper”, for with her work she contributed to the glory of God and the spreading of the Word. Yet that fateful day, a Saturday, the sixth of July in the 975, when the scribes and painters concluded their arduous work, the history of art acquired its first interpreter and protagonist.
by Martina Corgnati
St. Peter’s Square
Aug. 25, 2019
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