Josh O'Driscoll (The Morgan Library)

Wed April 27th 2022, 12:00 - 1:15pm

"Inventing Abstraction, ca. 950"

After earning his Ph.D. in Art History from Harvard University in 2015, Joshua O’Driscoll 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.


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.

Graciously co-sponsored by Stanford Libraries, Department of Special Collections; the Department of Art and Art History; the Department of History; and the Department of Religious Studies