Today, kind readers, a post for you about cheese! It is prompted specifically by a historiated initial from one of the late medieval illustrated copies of the Régime du corps, a health guide originally written in French in the early thirteenth century. Part III of the Régime consists of simples, or recipes recommended for the maintenance of good health, and it is in this section that a number of foods are depicted in the initials.
Although I find all of the food images in this manuscript to be extremely charming, there is something about this depiction of fromages that continues to delight and intrigue me, insisting that I spend more time thinking about it—only to find more questions than answers.
The image is almost minimalist in its simplicity. The capital “F”, only around two by two inches in size, is illustrated with fourteen rounds of cheese, depicted as simple white circles fanned out in three rows between the two crossbars of the letter. Especially to my twenty-first century eyes, this little painting brings to mind the abstract works of artists like Kazimir Malevich or Sol Lewitt.In fact, without the heading rubricated in red that identifies the contents of this chapter, I don’t believe I would necessarily know what these circles depict.
Many late medieval pictures in an equivalent framework—tiny scenes within the confines of initial letters on the pages of manuscripts—are often based on relatively formulaic constructions. For instance, a model image of a man on a horse could be used as the foundation for a biblical scene or for a knight in a romance. But were there pattern books for images of food? And if not, did the cheese’s painter create this image “from scratch”? I find myself wanting to attribute to this image’s designer certain aesthetic sensibilities that would have valued the perfect simplicity of these cheeses, as anachronistic and unfounded as that probably is.
And what, exactly, was the artist trying to communicate through this image? How would a medieval reader-viewer have approached or understood such a scene? I suppose it is true that multiple rounds of cheese conjure the food better than one circle would; that said, fourteen seems a bit excessive. Certainly when cheese is made, many rounds are created from one batch—perhaps this “scene” is also meant bring to mind many rounds stacked on shelves. As an object that may have been seen most often in multiples, perhaps the number was less significant here than the suggestion of abundance.
This miniature painting also leads me to other questions. What, ultimately, is the goal of any artist who creates images of food? Would this image have made the reader not only think happily “fromages!” but also feel hungry? Indeed, other paintings of cheese seem to do just that. In his “cheese portraits” Mike Geno manages to capture particularly well the textures of his subjects, bringing to mind the still life tradition that reaches back from Wayne Thiebaud to the magnificent seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of artists like Floris van Schooten.
It does seem that cheese art had different functions or associations over time: memento mori, symbol of twentieth-century consumerism and luxury, post modern commentary on abstract painting, and ultimate foodie extravagance (in the words of my colleague Louise Siddons, “perhaps the only way that health-obsessed citizens of the twentieth-first-century can “consume” cheese?”).
Despite what would seem at first to be a celebratory image, the chapter text that accompanies the historiated initial from the Régime manuscript actually speaks about cheese as being rather unhealthy: “cheese is generally completely bad because it swells the belly, making it heavy and inflated,” and “people who have used it for a long time…have pains in their side, a bad head, dullness of wit, kidney and bladder stones.”
Although if the reader must consume it, fresh cheese is more nourishing, while older cheese is best for therapeutic uses, such as comforting the stomach. Furthermore, at various historical moments, it seems cheese was actually seen as a lower-class food, associated with peasants and laborers. Whether or not this was an association prevalent when this manuscript was made in the late thirteenth century, it does seem surprising that a food not seen as particularly beneficial to one’s health would receive the special recognition offered by the historiated initial. Embellished with gold and expensive blue paint, this precious little painting of cheese reminds us of the marvelous ambiguities of such images, as well as both the pleasures and the dangers of this rich yet humble, sometimes stinky and sometimes sweet, deliciously complex food.