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Musical Instruments, Symbolism of

playing art illustrated harps

Musical instruments are found in a variety of contexts throughout early Christian and medieval art: in pictorial narratives, as iconographic attributes, and as both positive and negative symbols for human behavior.

Numerous references to music and musical instruments can be found in both the Old and New Testaments, and copious episodes involving music, song, and dance are illustrated in art, including triumphal processions after victorious bat- Page 181 tles, celebrations at feasts and marriages, praises to *God in religious ceremonies, and mournful occasions such as burial rites. The instruments mentioned in the Bible include: HARPS (and other stringed instruments), PIPES, FLUTES, ORGANS, HORNS, TRUMPETS (and other wind instruments), and percussion instruments such as BELLS, CYMBALS, TIMBRELS (or TAMBOURINES ). The forms of these instruments, when depicted in art, generally reflect contemporary usage as per the date of illustration, as well as the translations of the names of these ancient instruments into the approximate Latin terms and types.

Apart from the general narrative contexts mentioned above, some of the specific figures most frequently represented with, or playing upon, musical instruments are King *David (as composer of the Psalms and musician at the court of King *Saul; he is often shown with a HARP or LYRE ); the *Twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse (who play stringed instruments: HARPS, LYRES, LUTES , or VIOLS ); and * ANGELS (who announce the *Last Judgment by blowing on TRUMPETS , serenade God and the blessed in *heaven with HARPS and other stringed instruments, and may accompany the *Madonna and Child, or various *saints, with instruments such as portative ORGANS ).

In representations of the *Seven Liberal Arts, the art of Music may be depicted by a female figure (or by *Pythagoras or Tubal-Cain) playing upon a string of BELLS or with such other instruments as an ORGAN, HARP, LYRE , or VIOL . Musical instruments also feature in other secular contexts, in illustrations of love, romance, and leisure and also serve as negative symbols for distraction or rural, low life (e.g., peasants or *grotesques playing BAGPIPES in Gothic manuscript marginalia). *Animals playing upon musical instruments are often found in Romanesque and Gothic sculpture and painting and, although some of these scenes may be purely whimsical or decorative, an ass playing upon a harp may also serve as a symbol for the *vice of Ignorance.

Musical instruments (and various theoretical diagrams, e.g., illustrating musical ratios and the harmonious “Music of the Spheres” produced by the stars and planets) also appear in illustrated copies of the influential early sixth-century treatise by *Boethius, De institutione musica , which provided a source for most later medieval musical development and inspired many later authors. The (sung) tones of the Gregorian Chant are also, somewhat curiously, illustrated by figures playing a variety of instruments in late eleventh-century sculpture at Cluny. This reflects the great significance of sung music in the medieval monastic life generally, as well as the influence of the early eleventh-century Cluniac musician, Guido of Arezzo, whose important writings on music were also frequently illustrated.


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