“I see art as a way of accessing history,” says fine art professor Dominic Marner. Photo by Martin Schwalbe

It could be an episode of CSI. Here’s the expert, leaning over a fragile document and examining it closely to determine which of several “suspects” wrote the lines in question. But in this case, there’s no crime. The suspects are scribes from the 12th century who worked on a massive four-volume bible, and the expert counting lines and comparing handwriting is Prof. Dominic Marner of the School of Fine Art and Music.

Marner’s interest in art history isn’t about the placement of brushstrokes or the use of pigment.

“I see art as a way of accessing history,” he says. “All art is the product of its culture, and the investigation of it can help you understand the world of that time.”

The manuscripts of the 12th century don’t always give up their stories easily, but Marner enjoys the close analysis the task requires.

“It’s often complicated, and you have to put together a lot of little clues to get the information you’re looking for. I find it a thrill to be able to see and study something that may be 1,000 years old. It’s an incredible connection to the past.”

Born in Tanzania, where his parents were teaching, Marner moved with his family to Saskatchewan, then to England and back to Canada. He earned his BA in religious studies and art history at the University of Regina and his MA in art history at the University of Victoria before heading back to England to do his PhD at the University of East Anglia.

After completing his doctorate, he spent close to a decade teaching and doing research in England, Scotland and Ireland before joining Guelph in 2004.

“When I came here, I’d never been to southern Ontario other than Toronto, so I was pleasantly surprised,” he says.

Marner’s research focus has been medieval art. His original plan for his PhD was to study the manuscripts donated to England’s Durham Cathedral by Hugh du Puiset, who was bishop there until his death in 1195.

“Durham has a large library of manuscripts that have been there for hundreds of years — some of them for more than 1,000 years,” says Marner.

Fortunately, the manuscripts survived the upheavals and battles that destroyed the libraries of other cathedrals and monasteries. And many of the 75 manuscripts donated by Puiset are still kept there. But Marner found he had to scale down his original plan.

“I ended up working on just one book — a huge four-volume bible that Puiset had commissioned. What was interesting in this book was that the imagery all seemed to deal with death, loss and grief, and that’s quite unusual.”

Further research revealed that the man who had raised Puiset (actually his uncle) had died around the time the manuscript was started, and Marner concluded that the “very elaborate and luxurious” book was created in homage to the uncle.

Marner was also intrigued to find that the four volumes seem to have been worked on simultaneously by different scribes, which means the book was done more quickly than usual.

“There seems to have been about six of them, when most books at the time used only one or two scribes, so I am currently trying to understand who did what and will be writing a book about that.”

Durham Cathedral inspired another research topic for Marner: the revival of St. Cuthbert. This work resulted in a book titled St. Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham, published in 2000 by University of Toronto Press.

Cuthbert died in 687, and the process of declaring him a saint began a few years later when a book describing his life and the miracles he performed was written. His tomb became a popular place of pilgrimage, and many miracles were reported at his grave. After a number of moves, his bones were eventually placed in Durham Cathedral, where he continued to draw many pilgrims.

In 1170, however, Thomas Beckett was killed in Canterbury Cathedral by the king’s soldiers and became a saint soon afterwards.

“In response, an important new copy of the book on St. Cuthbert’s life was made, with more than 40 full-page images of the saint performing various miracles,” says Marner. “Cuthbert had also been viewed as being very misogynous, but in the new story of his life, many of his miracles were done to help women. It was all about making him a friendlier saint.”

The revised St. Cuthbert helped Durham Cathedral compete for pilgrims with Canterbury, and that competition intrigues Marner.

“You have to consider who is constructing these ideas and stories about the saints and what they’re getting out of it. This is a good example of how saints were used by the community at different periods of time.”

For Marner, the libraries where historical documents are stored are also sources of hidden treasure.

“It’s wonderful when you find something you didn’t know was there. When I was working in Cambridge, I had access to many ancient texts, including Sir Isaac Newton’s notes and Charles Darwin’s materials. I worked on a manuscript that contains the earliest known Scottish Gaelic — one that has interesting links to Macbeth.”

When he’s not hunched over an elaborately decorated manuscript, Marner enjoys running (he has completed four half-marathons and one full marathon) and playing golf, but he spends much of his free time involved in after-school activities with his two children.