Inventing Abstraction, ca. 950 - a CMEMS Workshop with Joshua O'Driscoll (Morgan Library)

Date Range
Wed April 27th 2022, 12:00 - 1:15pm
Event Sponsor
Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Department of Art & Art History
Department of Religious Studies
History Department
Stanford University Libraries
Building 260, Pigott Hall
450 Jane Stanford Way, Building 260, Stanford, CA 94305

This hybrid event will be held both via zoom and in-person. Zoom invite:

For in-person attendance, join us in 260-252 (The German Studies Library). Please complete your Stanford Health Check and wear a face mask while in the building. 

Outdoors lunch will be provided after the event. Attend the talk in person, and join us for further conversation in the courtyard behind Pigott Hall (or take lunch with you when you go).  

The collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the late-ninth century brought to a halt the vibrant traditions of book painting that began with the patronage of no less a figure than Charlemagne, the first medieval emperor of Western Europe. It took decades for a new empire to assert itself under the Ottonians, and it took even longer for new traditions of painting to emerge. Yet unlike the works made for Charlemagne and his heirs, which were insistently figural, the earliest examples of this new art are surprisingly abstract. Focusing on the so-called Astor Lectionary, a tenth-century manuscript from Corvey, preserved today at the New York Public Library, this talk explores the various strategies of non-figural illumination in early Ottonian art. Apart from a few notable exceptions, earlier generations of scholars dismissed the Astor Lectionary and others like it—the so-called "Ornamental Group" of manuscripts from Corvey—as being primarily "imageless" (bildlos). As this talk demonstrates, however, recent shifts in the discipline of art history—along with the main trajectories of art itself in the early twentieth century—made it possible to see these old manuscripts in new ways. Through their remarkable approach to painting, these manuscripts demand a consideration that goes beyond the traditionally-employed methods of style and iconography—one that examines instead how their non-figural illumination affects reading practices, generates meaning, and engages with the historical context in which the manuscripts were created.


Joshua O'Driscoll is currently Associate Curator at The Morgan Library. After earning his Ph.D. in Art History from Harvard University in 2015, Joshua joined the Morgan Library as Assistant Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. At the Morgan, he served as the in-house curator of the 2018 exhibition Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders, working with guest curators Asa Mittman and Sherry Lindquist; along with Jeffrey Hamburger, he was co-curator of the recent exhibition entitled Imperial Splendor: the Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500, which was on view this past fall. Prior to joining the Morgan, Joshua assisted on major manuscript exhibitions including Royal Manuscripts, held at the British Library in London, and Beyond Words, an exhibition of manuscripts in Boston area collections. In addition to his curatorial activities, Joshua has authored and edited several publications, primarily on German and French illumination of the 10th and 11th centuries. Working with Cynthia Hahn, he has regularly co-taught graduate seminars on manuscript illumination at the City University of New York. His scholarly distinctions include the Paul-Clemen Prize in Germany, which recognizes new research on Rhenish art; a three-year Paul Mellon fellowship from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.); and a DAAD fellowship for research in Germany.