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A view of the city : the urban landscape and its architectural imagery in the Ashburnham Pentateuch Tuttle, Kimberly


Of the surviving eighteen folios illustrating the Genesis and Exodus narratives in the late antique manuscript, the Ashburnham Pentateuch (“AP”), all but a few pages are dominated by elaborate cityscapes. Indeed, as a work of art, the city defines much of the narrative space in the miniatures. It provides an immediate visual contact with the Pentateuch stories through a combination of framing the Old Testament figures within an urban perspective which displays both interior and exterior city views. This imagery of the city is arguably one of the most perplexing features of the AP. It does not reflect the pictorial conventions of cities in the art of this period, nor does it accurately represent the wilderness setting of the biblical text. My thesis proposes that the distinct cityscapes in the manuscript represent what architectural historian William MacDonald calls the “urban armatures” of imperial Roman cities. These armatures (thoroughfares, passageways, and civic buildings) are the essential architectural components of imperial urbanism. Transferred onto parchment, the architecture not only guides the viewer’s navigation of the AP illustrations, it also highlights the “dominant images and functional associations” of the signs and spaces of the imperial Roman city. I argue that this juxtaposition between the Old Testament imagery and the material form and look of a city familiar to a contemporary Roman viewer constitutes a pictorial argument for a new Christian Roman culture in the manuscript. My interpretation positions the AP as part of an exegetical strategy, which sought to link the biblical past with the imperial legacy of Rome. In this sense, the AP was an ecclesiastical tool used by Roman popes to assert the Church of Rome as the Universal Christian church, and for Church fathers to reconcile the non-Christian, Roman pagan past with Christian Rome in late antiquity. This is vividly illustrated in the AP, where the past represented by the Old Testament is incorporated into the general history of the Roman Empire through the presence of the imperial cityscapes. The resulting effect is a powerful visual expression of Rome’s ordained role as the inheritor of the Christian tradition.

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