Mark S. Weiner

“O Valencia!” Oh, Aragon! Oh, 1247!

In Books and libraries, Cross-cultural encounters & comparisons, Europe, Islam, Spain on August 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm

I received an email yesterday that caused me to lean back from my desk, look up, and audibly whisper “oh, wow, now that’s just incredibly cool.”

The message brought word of a new digital program by the J. Paul Getty Trust called “open content.” In the words of a press release of August 12, the goal of the program is “to share, freely and without restriction, as many of the Getty’s digital resources as possible” (emphasis added, with joy). The press release continues:

The initial focus of the Open Content Program is to make available all images of public domain artworks in the Getty’s collections. Today we’ve taken a first step toward this goal by making roughly 4,600 high-resolution images of the Museum’s collection free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose. These are high-resolution, reproduction-quality images with embedded metadata, some over 100 megabytes in size.

If the idea of free, unrestricted, high-res, metadata-rich images of great art touches a chord deep inside you, I hope you’ll join me for a moment in jumping up and down in glee.

Hands from Vidal MayorNaturally, I immediately had to check out the search gateway and start browsing—in particular, to look for images with legal themes. And I found some great ones.

Today, I’ve been captivated by images from an illuminated medieval manuscript called the Vidal Mayor. This beauty has nothing to do with mayors or with anyone named Sassoon. Instead, it’s the essential redaction of laws of thirteenth-century Aragon—and before this admittedly just somewhat obscure idea causes anyone click “back” on their browser, let me share what this means.

Located in northeast Spain, the Crown of Aragon was one of the great medieval kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula. Along with the kingdom of Castile, it was a leading force in the Reconquista, the Christian recapture of the peninsula from the Muslim caliphate of al-Andalus.

From 1213 to 1272, the king of Aragon was James I, who left a lively autobiography of his rein called The Book of Deeds. After he conquered Mallorca in 1229 and Valencia in 1238—and as the reconquest generally was nearing its end (for Castile seized Córdoba in 1236 and would take Seville in 1248)—James did what any self-respect king does in such circumstances of victory: he ordered the creation of a code of law. For this, he turned to one of his relatives, the Bishop of Huesca, Vidal de Canellas.

The ultimate result of the bishop’s labors, completed around 1247, is the Vidal Mayor—and the manuscript in the Getty is the only known copy in existence. It is beautifully illuminated, filled with hundreds of historiated, illustrated initials and charming drolleries like theses:

Getty Image O


I’ll talk more about the code tomorrow and why I think it’s so interesting, but for now, here is an image taken from one of its pages. It’s of an equestrian duel between a creditor and a debtor. One of the men is clearly Christian—he’s adorned with a cross. As for the other man, the crescent suggests he was one of the many Muslims who remained in Aragon after the reconquest—who, indeed, constituted a majority of the population.

Battle of Debtor and Creditor, from Vidal Mayor

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