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Medieval Sourcebook:
Theophilus:
An Essay Upon Diverse Arts, c. 1125

The identity of Theophilus, author of what has been aptly called an encyclopedia of Christian art, is not certain. From internal evidence it can be deduced that he was a monk and a German and that he wrote during the first half of the twelfth century. One of the manuscripts of his book calls him "Theophilus who is also Roger." Since Theophilus devotes its longest section to metal-work, and since a famous metal-worker who was also a German and a Benedictine monk and whose name was Roger of Helmershausen was alive at the same period, it is very tempting to attribute Theophilus' book to him. This identification is probable but by no means certain.

Also uncertain is the date of the work. Lynn White, Jr., has recently asserted that Theophilus' third preface is an answer to St. Bernard's attack on Cluniac art. (See above, pp. 14- i 6.) Since White imagines it to have been a prompt reply, he places the date of Theopbilus' book in the third decade of the twelfth century and guesses that it was written in 1122-23. Certainly the views expressed by Theophilus are diametrically opposed to those of St. Bernard. In a full and reasoned discussion, the former defends the important place of art in God's universe.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Theophilus' book cannot, for reasons of space, be illustrated here: his fascination with technology and his detailed directions as to how each type of artist should go about his work. The latter are of great interest to the historian of medieval science. For example, White notes that for thousands of years wire had been forged. The first known reference to that great improvement, the draw-plate, is to be found in the treatise of Theophilus. The treatise reveals, in fact, what for its time is an extraordinary combination of interests: a concern both with the philosophy and the technology of art.

PREFACE TO THE FIRST BOOK

Theophilus - humble priest, servant of the servantsof God, unworthy of the name and profession of monk - wishes to all, who are willing to avoid and spurn idleness and the shiftlessness of the mind by the useful occupation of their hands and the agreeable contemplation of new things, the recompense of a heavenly reward!

In the account of the creation of the world, we read that man was created in the image and likeness of God and was animated by the Divine breath, breathed into him. By the eminence of such distinction, he was placed above the other living creatures, so that, capable of reason, he acquired participation in the wisdom and skill of the Divine Intelligence, and, endowed with free will, was subject onlv to the will of his Creator, and revered His sovereignty. Wretchedly deceived bv the guile of the Devil, through the sin of disobedience be lost the privilege of immortality, but, however, so far transmitted to later posterity the distinction of wisdom and intelligence, that whoever will contribute both care and concern is able to attain a capacity for all arts and skills, as if by hereditary right.

Human skill sustained this purpose and, in its various activities, pursued profit and pleasure and, finally, with the passage of time transmitted it to the predestined age of Christian religion. So, it has come about that, what God intended to create for the praise and glory of His name, a people devoted to God has restored to His worship.

Therefore, let not the pious devotion of the faithful neglect what the wise foresight of our predecessors has transmitted to our age; what God has given man as an inheritance, let man strive and work with all eagerness to attain. When this has been attained, let no one glorify himself, as if it were received of himself and not Another, but let him humbly render thanks to God, from Whom and through Whom all things are, and without Whom nothing is. Nor let him conceal what has been given in the cloak of envy, or hide it in the closet of a grasping heart. But, repelling all vain-glory, let him with a joyful heart and with simplicity dispense to all who seek, in fear of the Gospel judgment on that merchant who failed to restore to his master his talent with added interest, and, deprived of all regard, merited the censure from his master's lips of being a wicked servant.

Fearful of incurring this judgment, 1, an unworthy and frail mortal of little consequence, freely offer to all, who wish to learn with humility, what has freely been given me by the Divine condescension, which gives to all in abundance and holds it against no man. I exhort them to recognize God's favour towards me and to appreciate His generosity, and I would have them know that they can be quite sure that the same things are at hand for themselves if they will add their own labour. For, as it is wicked and detestable for man in any man to strive after, or take by theft, what is forbidden or not intended for him, so, to fail to strive after what is rightfully his and an inheritance from God the Father, or to hold it in contempt, must be put down to laziness and foolishness.

Therefore, dearest son,- wherever you may be, whose heart is inspired by God to investigate the vast field of the various arts and apply your mind and care in order to gather from it what pleases you-do not despise useful and precious things, simply because your native earth has produced them for you of its own accord or unexpectedly. For, foolish is the merchant who suddenly finds a treasure in a hole in the ground and fails to pick it up and keep it. if the common vines were to produce myrrh, frankincense and balsam for you: if your native springs were to pour forth oil, milk and honey: if, instead of nettles and thistles and other weeds of the garden, nard, calamus and various spices grew, surely you would not still despise them as mean and homely, and voyage over lands and seas to procure foreign things, not better but probably more mean. This, you would consider to be great folly. For, however much men are accustomed to place in the first rank precious things that are sought with much toil and acquired at great expense, and to look after them with great solicitude, yet, if meanwhile they happen to find or come across things for nothing that are comparable or better, then they keep these with a similar, even greater care.

Wherefore, dearest son,-whom God has made wholly happy in this regard, in so far as those things are offered freely, for which many at the greatest peril of life plough the sea waves compelled to endure hunger and cold, or which others, wearied with long servitude in the schools and not exhausted by the . desire of learning, only acquire with intolerable labour-be eager and anxious to look at this little work on the various arts, read it through with a retentive memory, and cherish it with a warm affection. If you will diligently examine it, you will find in it whatever kinds and blends of various colours Greece possesses: whatever Russia knows of workmanship in enamels or variety of niello: whatever Arabia adorns with repouss6 or cast work, or engravings in relief: whatever gold embellishments Italy applies to various vessels or to the carving of gems and ivories: whatever France esteems in her precious variety of windows: whatever skilled Germany praises in subtle work in gold, silver, copper, iron, wood and stone.

When you have read through these things several times and commended them to a retentive memory, you will recompense me for the labour of instruction if every time you make good use of my work you pray to Almighty God to have mercy on me. He knows that I have 'Written' the things collected here out of no love for human approbation nor greed for temporal gain, and that I have not appropriated anything precious or rare nor kept silent about something reserved especially for myself from malice or envy, but that, to increase the honour and glory of His name, I have ministered to the necessities of the many and bad regard to their advantage.

PREFACE TO THE THIRD BOOK

DAVID-renowned among the prophets, whom the Lord God, in His prescience, predestined before the world began, and whom He "chose after his own heart" because of his simplicity and humility of mind, and placed as a Prince over His chosen people, strengthening him with a princely spirit so that he might nobly and wisely establish the rule of so great a name-David, applying himself with the full force of his mind to the love of his Creator, among other things uttered these words: "Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy House."

It is true that a man of such authority and such great intellect may have meant by that House the habitation of the heavenly court, in which God presides over hymning choirs of angels in inestimable glory, and for which he pants with his whole being, saying: "One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life"; or else the refuge of a devoted breast and pure heart where truly God dwells, for, burning with a desire to entertain such a guest, he prays: "Renew a right spirit within me, O Lord." Nevertheless, it is certain that be desired the embellishment of the material House of God, which is the place of prayer. For, he himself longed with a most ardent desire to become the founder of the House of God but, because of his frequent spilling of human, albeit enemy blood, he did not merit it and entrusted almost all the needful resources in gold, silver, bronze and iron to his son Solomon. For be had read in Exodus that the Lord had given to Moses a commandment to build a tabernacle, and had chosen by name the masters of the work, and bad filled them with the spirit of wisdom and understanding and knowledge in all learning for making works in gold and silver, bronze, gems, wood and in art of contriving and every kind. By pious reflection he had discerned that God delighted in that which He assigned to the power of bellishment of this kind, the execution of which and guidance of the Holv Spirit, and he believed that nothing of this kind could be endeavoured without His inspiration.

Wherefore, dearest son, when you have adorned His House with such embellishment and with such variety of work, you will not doubt, but believe lest perchance you have misgivings, I will clearly demonstrate that whatever with a full faith, that your heart has been filled with the Spirit of God. And you can learn, understand or devise is ministered to you by the grace of the sevenfold spirit.

Through the spirit of wisdom, you know that all created things proceed from God, and without Him nothing is.
Through the spirit of understanding, you have received the capacity for skill-the order, variety and measure with which to pursue your varied work.
Through the spirit of counsel, you do not bury your talent given you by God, but, by openly working and teaching in all humility, you display it faithfully to those wishing to understand.
Through the spirit of fortitude, you drive away all the torpor of sloth, and whatever you assay with energy you bring it with full vigour to completion.
Through the spirit of knowledge accorded you, you are, in the abundance of heart….

From Theophilus: De Diversis Artibus, ed. and trans. by C. R. Dodwell (Edinburgh and London, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd. and New York, Oxford University Press,.), pp. 14, 16, 61-64.

[Note: This text was sent to the Sourcebook via email. The authorship of the introduction was not indicated.]


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall June 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu