This was no Friday, but a Friarsday, when the lecture theatre became like a plenary general chapter meeting of scholars working on mendicant art and architecture, discussing the large amount of scholarship that has recently appeared on the friars in Italy. It was a highly discursive day at which the Courtauld excels, highlighting the new avenues of enquiry medieval art history is taking in pursuit of meaning.
The first papers were given by Caroline Bruzelius and Erik Gustafson, focusing on the architecture of the mendicants. They investigated the social context of the friars’ vast hall-like churches, generally held as being tremendously influential on urban late Gothic architecture, a tall order for men who asserted monastic poverty. The architecture certainly suited the uncertain nature of their income from lay bequests: built piecemeal, but of high impact in terms of sheer scale. The twelfth-century reformed Vallumbrosan and Camaldolese monks were also shown as important precedents for both their rule and architecture, a revelation to many.
In the next session imagery took the fore, something the Franciscans are commonly credited in having an enormous influence in, trailblazing a new naturalism looking forward to the Renaissance. Janet Robson demonstrated through the fresco cycle at Assisi how we should not treat images as encoded texts, but instead as lived intellectual experience tied up in artistic representation. This was also how John Renner engaged with the statue of St. Francis in Siena, performing a sculptural exegesis on its form to interrogate it as an object of Franciscan belief and self-identity.
Donal Cooper and Claudia Bolgia returned to buildings to look at them as as venues for art and ritual. What was revealed here was that narrow genres are unhelpful. Objects and spaces are not limited to one purpose nor does form prove function, the church had many spaces common to both layman and friar. Then the final pairing continued to investigate these concepts with more specific approaches. Amy Neff showed how prayer books could carry specifically Franciscan strategies of ascent through prayer outside the convent, influencing the wider world. Finally Michaela Zöschg took us beyond the visual into the world of sound: and how the female convent allowed not just avenues for seeing, but also for hearing, and how the acousmatic could even more so demolish ideas of segregated space and experience.
This was a conference not just of relevance to those who work on the religious orders, but also medieval art generally, and it showed how art history needs to branch out into many disciplines, methods and sources if it is to uncover the situation of the making of the work of art. One figure who cropped up in the discussions was T. S. Eliot, appropriately for modern medievalists, a trailblazing Modernist with great esteem for the past and tradition. “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice”, he writes towards the end of The Four Quartets. It seems however, with the variety of approaches embodied in every paper, next year’s art historians will need to speak in tongues to really comprehend the intellectual and material context of mendicant art.