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

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.

The Books that Shaped Art History (Book Launch, 31st October 2013)

Last night the Research Forum was celebrating  the release of Thames and Hudson’s The Books that Shaped Art History, a collection of sixteen essays by eminent art historians on seminal publications from within our still anxiously young discipline. Chaired by former director of the Courtauld, the infinitely amiable Eric Fernie, the session invited three of the authors to reflect on their pieces in a packed Kenneth Clark lecture theatre.

John-Paul StonhardJohn-Paul Stonhard both authored the essay on Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art and was co-editor of the whole publication with Richard Shone. Shone had composed a list of seminal books in 2007, which subsequently disappeared. This “lost list”, generated much fascination in the audience but as much that was revealed was that it had one book in common with the final (Fry’s Cézanne), but mostly the authors were the same. A helpful paraphrase of Gombrich: “There is no art history, only art historians” recognised how much personality dominated this evening. Clark was embodied by his own concept of the Nude; “balanced and prosperous”, and there was little escaping the ghosts of these figures this All Hallows Eve.

Susie NashLooming over Susie Nash was the spirit of Erwin Panofsky, grasping his Early Netherlandish Painting.  His book is an enormous achievement, a synthesis of material and ideas into a seemingly  impregnable fortress of apparatus, and perhaps this almost Biblical authority it seemed to exude led to antagonism towards it when Susie herself was a student. Yet  it was also Panofsky’s relationship with the object that seems remarkable within current methods of art historical interrogation. For Panofsky, the back of a painting rarely meant evidence for its provenance and manufacture, because most often it was the matte reverse of a glossy photograph. His book was written almost entirely surrounded by reproductions, often black and white, and this is evident in his text where occasionally he clearly has no idea what colour a painting was.


Paul HillsPaul Hills had a much more portable tome to review, with no footnotes at all. Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in Pictorial Style is often seen as the Rough Guide to Social Art History, yet Paul did remind us of its oft-forgotten subtitle showing that the inherent Form of paintings was still central to the investigation. Paul was the closest of all to his author, which allowed for a personal insight into its original context. Baxandall perhaps meant it as a challenge to the Courtauld, but in fact it was its sister institution the Warburg which was greater perturbed by his concept of “Period Eye”, seeing it as a redressing of the hoary old zeitgeist.


Inevitably, the thoughts at the end of this evening was if the presenters would be reviewed in “More Books that Shaped Art History”, who in the audience who would be considered for “Even More Books that Shaped Art History”, and the undergraduates in the Halloween Party downstairs who might make it into “Oh no! Not more books that Shaped Art History”.