Authority in Visual Exegesis

Jeffrey Moser


Studies of illustrated texts generally proceed from the assumption that the illustrations are subordinate to the text in the production of meaning. Although we recognise that illustrations fundamentally transform the experience of a book, as a practical matter, our inquiries typically start from the words. This is as true for inscribed pictures as it is for illustrated texts. Just as the presence of cartouches naming the emperors in the Thirteen Emperors handscroll attributed to Yan Liben (d. 673), encourages scholars to seek correspondences between the visual qualities of the portraits and the historical biographies of their named subjects, the imagery on the frontispiece of the twelfth-century Floreffe Bible is perceived as “anomalous” because it contradicts the iconographic expectations generated by its written tituli. Despite the purportedly visual focus of art historical inquiry, wherever the written word is seen, it consistently instigates the leading questions and guides their resolution, regardless of whether the subject is an early Chinese handscroll or a medieval European frontispiece.

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