Antiphonary vs Anatomy

Two distinct patterns drew my attention during the tour of the BPL archives.



First: The music written in the Psalterium reminded me of Sacred Harp musical notation.

Second: The symbolic labeling of organs in the De Humani Corporis Fabrica connected to class discussions of the development of a uniform alphabet.


Although the two texts stand on opposing ends of the literary output of the Renaissance, both the scientific and religious text exhibit the development of symbolic systems in text. Where the Psalterium captures music in geometric shapes and a simple staff, the Corporis Fabrica defines the physical world through assignment of distinct characters. As both books were meant for study, the physical form of the text can be analyzed as a tool for reader comprehension. The Psalterium is a type of text used in religious choir known as an antiphonary. As the book was used for group prayer, the large font size was required for optimal use of the text. The font, traditional blackletter, clearly would have appealed to a clergy that often wrote and read in that script. The Corporis Fabrica font is a sharp departure from the Psalterium, as its italic font indicates that the reader of the text required a higher ratio of text to page. It should be noted that italic font eased use of movable type, while blackletter was often seen as more difficult to use with movable type. Keeping this fact in mind, it makes sense that Corporis was printed while Psalterium was handwritten.


The man’s organs are labeled with English and Greek letters


Look closely at the order of the alphabet and notice the missing V, among others

Look closely at the order of the alphabet and notice the missing V, among others

Both texts were used as study aids, but the differences between scientific and religious studies shaped the form of the text. Religious text was meant to be read in a social setting, with a group of monks reading the prayers in unison. The large point size of the Psalterium text would have allowed for reading from a distance, making the book a physical center point for social study. Vibrant colors and complex illuminations of the Psalterium would have given the text aesthetic beauty and visual power for its readers. In a world limited to colors gleaned from precious materials, the use of bright color in the text underlines its value. Similar to the Psalterium, Corporis Fabrica was a valuable text for study, but in a different capacity. Given that the text was printed in a font meant to condense information, with pages that left little empty space, the Corporis was likely used as a personal study aid for anatomy. The image of a man labeled with Greek letters suggests that the reader of the text was highly educated, as the knowledge of Greek letters was often limited to the educated elite. Precise representations of the human form were made from woodcut engravings that obviously used the leading woodcut technology of the day. The layering of small lines to create depth and definition in the illustration of the man would have required intense attention to design detail. Even the form of the man’s leg has a clearly designated shadow laid out, further reflecting the effort put into an accurate representation of the physical world. As the science and arts of the Renaissance were influenced by a revived interest in the Classical age, it follows that this text uses both Greek lettering and hyper-accurate aesthetic depiction of anatomy.

Notice the precise shadow stemming from the man's ankle

Notice the precise shadow stemming from the man’s ankle

The Psalterium, like many other antiphonaries, uses what are known as neumes (or square note musical notation). The box shape of the notes immediately reminded me of shape singing, also known as Sacred Harp singing. Shape notes were developed as a simple way to place notes within the musical scale. Religious groups in the American South often used shape notes to involve parishioners that were illiterate, with the use of a simple visual vocabulary easing comprehension. The notes in the Psalterium, although not the shape notes that I know, exhibit a simple visual pattern. Given that the notes were created to communicate with a community, the simple box shape of the notes and spare four line staff clearly illustrate the musical pattern. In contrast with the intricate illuminations sitting next to it, the musical notation in the Psalterium shows the simplistic beginnings of Western musical notation. Just as the Psalterium is an example of early musical symbol systems, the Corporis Fabrica uses an early iteration of the alphabet for diagram labeling. The alphabet used to label the anatomy of the man is in fact incomplete, with many missing letters. Both texts represent early systems of symbolic communication used in two dominant forces in Western society, religion and science.

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