Views and Reviews


Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture (Annual Medieval Postgraduate Colloquium, 2nd February 2014)

Wednesday, 5 February, 2014 by James Alexander Cameron

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

John Lowden entertains the (mostly) black and white robed audience at the Religious Poverty, Visual Riches book launch

The Thursday before the nineteenth annual medieval colloquium, the longest running of all the Courtauld’s postgraduate student conferences, was a very special occasion. It was the official launch of the new book of the Institute’s longest serving current lecturer, Joanna Cannon. Religious Poverty, Visual Riches is a long-awaited and sizeable achievement, and all were treated to a feast of black and white nibbles to match the habit of the Dominicans that the book focuses on as artistic patrons. But also much thought is given to the theme of boundaries in its pages. Not just between what is history and art history to create an engaging story of art serving the Religious Life, but also conceptual: what is connoisseurship and what is technical analysis. Most important are the boundaries of the very churches themselves: the spaces of the Laity and the Friars and the liminal areas between form the architecture of the book’s chapters.

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen's chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

Speaker James Hillson at St Stephen’s chapel at Westminster this summer: vault 1290s or 1340s?

This was why the following Saturday conference was given over to theme of Boundaries in Medieval Art and Architecture. The first session brought us into the conceptual realm of historiographical geography and nationalism. Sophie Dentzer begun the day by showing the exuberant vaults of fourteenth-century England were subject to circumstances. Being often retro-fits on to earlier buildings, and not unknown elsewhere in Europe, consequently she advanced that the English Decorated Style may not have been as English as we thought. James Hillson similarly used his new research into the almost obliterated royal chapel at Westminster to show that some parts may have been designed and built nearly half a century later than usually proposed, 1340s rather than 1290s, to remind us that invention should not be tied to centres of power.

In session two, Federica Gigante’s illustration of painted textile showed how meaning could be carried across media: the draping of holy Islamic objects in fabrics into the painting of whole sections of Christian buildings in such patterns to demarcate their importance. But Maria Alessia Rossi’s extremely involved study of fourteenth-century pictorial cycles at Thessaloniki through the textual evidence of homilies and the liturgy reminded us that a work of art can contain different but parallel meanings. A contemporary audience could read motifs in multiple ways, and it is no mean task for the art historian to synthesise them into a single interpretation.

 St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

St Michael shutting the gate of hell, part of a Last Judgement scene
in BL Stowe 944, the New Minster Liber Vitae (c.1031)

After lunch, we had consideration of objects that stood at a physical threshold. First Cristina Dagalita gave us a new reading of the tempting prince with a horrifying gisant back among the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. He was identified with the fool “who said in his heart there is no God”, as pictured in the margins of Psalters, tempting the foolish Virgins away from the true door where Christ waits inside for His brides. Karl Kinsella applied an intellectual exegetical reading to Doors in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, a transition between realms: Earthly and Heavenly, pre- and post-lapsarian, Life and Death.

Synagoga at Strasbourg

Synagoga at Strasbourg

The day was brought to a close with one of the oldest boundaries of all: that of gender. Monica Winiarczyk showed Synagoga, the downfallen counterpart of Ecclesia, as a positive figure: an illustration of the Jewish people within salvation history, and therefore a potential bride of Christ rather than totally damned. Andrea Mattiello’s case studies of some fourteenth-century Byzantine churches in Greece with fascinating surviving frescoes showed that delimiting their two-storey spaces into male and female, priestly and lay, elite and common was more difficult than it first seemed. Finally Niamh Bhalla’s study of gender in Byzantine Last Judgements brought the day to a thoughtful close: an apparently misogynistic view of sin that was reinforced in a society with a extremely fluid concept of the performative act of gender: where does a masculine female saint stand in a culture of Eunuchs, celibate priests and the glorious Virgin Mary?

Such literal gendering reminds of the wider view of the importance of concepts of contraries, but also the vast spectrum in between which all speakers touched on throughout the day. The conversations within the community of the Courtauld and our gratefully received visiting speakers and audience this weekend certainly boded well for such far-reaching art historical discourses in the next generation of scholarship.

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