A conference diptych: Gothic Ivories: Content and Context

The Louvre Descent from the Cross

The Louvre Descent from the Cross in 2013

Part of the Gothic Ivories Project, a free-to-use database that aims to catalogue every surviving European ivory carving of c.1200-1530, is to hold a bi-annual get-together, this year jointly held by the Courtauld and the British Museum. For a conference that swallowed up a medievalist’s weekend right before the annual International Medieval Conference at Leeds, apparently quite a number were made of stronger stuff than mere animal teeth to sit out the series of papers by early career academics and museum curators. The database is a very useful tool for the armchair connoisseur enabling one to compare ivories from all over the world on a laptop screen. But V&A curator Paul Williamson’s keynote on Saturday morning reminded the essential challenge for scholars. To understand these objects, we have retain a keen understanding of the wider historical context and the visual culture of the time, and of course cross-overs into other media by carvers working predominantly in ivory.

So we had an initial session of close-looking. Louvre curators Danielle Gaborit-Chopin and Elisabeth Antonine-Konig and conservator Juliette Levy-Hinstin investigated the object history of works in their collection such as the extraordinary Descent from the Cross and the dispersal of its figures and the separation of their heads in the tumult of the Revolution. From a completely different angle, Christian Nikolaus Opitz and Katherine Eve Baker both gave papers with less pretty pictures and more focus on documents, but vividly illustrating the creation, trade, function and storage of these objects in medieval life.

16th-centy Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson's panel questions

16th-century Memento Mori from the Schnutgen Museum, Cologne, looms over Igmar Reesing, Jack Hartnell and Stephen Perkinson’s panel questions

Post-lunch we were treated to Jack Hartnell’s object analysis of an ivory surgical knife, a tantalising suggestion of intertwined form and function, and a pair of enticingly macabre memento mori ivories by Stephen Perkinson, with a complex appeal for their original owners of humanistic allegory, anatomical detail and dark humour. The way that the nineteenth century received ivories was considered in the final session of the day, and the presentation of some nineteenth-century sketchbooks in papers by Franz Kirchweger and Benedetta Chiesi excited much of the audience interested in tracing the wanderings of these objects.

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guerin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

Chuck Little, Emily Guerry, Sarah Guérin and Marta Karyzhanovskaia at the BM

On Sunday the looking beyond ivories continued, with papers by Glyn Davies, Monique Blanc and Michele Tomasi on the Embriachi, a loosely-defined workshop who work primarily in bone rather than ivory, who show how difficult it is to categorise the medieval craftsman. The relationship of ivories to monumental works was looked at throughout the day by scholars working primarily on other material, Emily Guerry on the Saint Chapelle as a source of ivory iconography and Carla Varela Fernandes on the narrative panels on a stone tomb in Alcobaça perhaps looking to ivories.

The Gothic Ivories Project is only one tool in the arsenal of anyone wishing to study this genre. These two days showed the importance of viewing the object in person whenever possible, their documented history from the beginnings as pure ivory right through to the present, and their place in devotional and material culture to truly bring these precious objects to the level of regard held by easel painting and monumental sculpture.

See here for the full programme of these two days and some of the excellent papers there has not been space to mention

Thank Francis It’s Friarsday: Art, Architecture and the Friars: New Work and Future Prospects (23rd May 2014)

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

S. Caterina, Treviso. Friary with temporary wall for unbuilt nave. Fresco attrib. Tomaso di Modena.

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.

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

John Renner and the statue of St. Francis in San Francesco, Siena

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.

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

The Morgan Codex f.22, Pacino di Buonaguida, c.1320s

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.

Medieval Work in Progress: Dr Robert Mills on Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Unicorn being slain from the Rochester Bestiary (London, British Library, Royal MS F xiii) folio 10v

Although given a rather moderate-sounding title, as soon as Dr Mills started speaking about the bestialisation of the human in the context of medieval torture and martyrdom images, the seminar on the 22nd of May, “Medieval Art and the Question of the Animal,” immediately became much more complex than initially expected (and for those of us with darker tastes, much more interesting too). Mills began by addressing theories of “Speciesism” and considerations of how violence is represented from the perspective of the animal, and deconstructed these ideas by considering what actually constituted “animal perspective” in the Middle Ages.

In this context, Mills looked closely at how animals functioned in a symbolic manner in the late medieval period, and how this informed the pedagogical functions of bestiaries, such as the Rochester Bestiary (BL MS Royal 12 F xiii) and another in the British Library, MS Harley 3244. This was but a springboard, however, for Mills’ exploration of animality within the category of the human. Drawing upon Aristotle’s claims that man is both beyond, yet also within the animal, and that “man is by nature a political animal,” he established that the distinction between “human” and “animal” is essentially porous – the foundation of his study of both animal and human slaughter in manuscripts. There were some beautiful examples of this – particularly in Leviticus 1 of the Bible Moralisée (ÖNB Vienna 2554, on folio 27r). On this folio was a richly illuminated, deep vermillion rendering of the flaying of a cow, with the corresponding moralisation equally graphically depicting the skinning alive of St Bartholomew. Here, the flaying of the cow was so vividly conflated with human martyrdom, and the torture of both cow and saint were represented almost identically. Similarly in another Bible Moralisée (Naples, MS Français 9561), the orientation of the humans and the animals undergoing torture was exactly the same, as well as the nature of the torture and the torment on their faces – an interesting revelation, considering the common perception of medieval attitudes towards animal rights. The martyrs are conspicuously dehumanised, heightening the effect of the torture, whilst the animals are simultaneously humanised. The porousness of the distinction is no clearer than here.

What I found most interesting, though, was Dr Mills’ idea of medieval books themselves literally representing the word-made-flesh – that the bloody, torturous image of the cow being flayed in Vienna 2554 vividly recalls the production of the parchment that the illumination is painted on; medieval parchment, also called vellum, was itself made from cow or calf skin. The parchment in this context becomes performative, and is an active component of the cow’s torture; “the violence on the page,” Dr Mills explained, “serves as an uncanny reminder of the violence behind the production of the page.”

Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500

Ivory pyxis with poetic inscription, Cordoba, 960s. Copyright the Hispanic Society of America, New York

On Saturday 20 April 2013, scholars gathered at The Courtauld Institute of Art for Beyond the Western Mediterranean: Materials, Techniques and Artistic Production, 650-1500, organised by Sarah Guérin (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Mariam Rosser Owen (Victoria and Albert Museum) and sponsored by the Barakat Trust, the Economic History Society and Sam Fogg. Guest blogger Anabelle Gambert-Jouan shares her views.

The upcoming opening of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée in Marseilles this summer will invite the public to take a new look at the culture of the Mediterranean. In light of the attention that will soon be turned in this direction, Saturday’s symposium appeared to me as a perfectly timed opportunity to reconsider my perception of the region’s rich history. Instead of approaching the Mediterranean in its entirety, the day’s presentations offered in-depth and varied explorations of the notion of a shared medieval culture in the Western Mediterranean and in the territories beyond the sea’s southern shores.

The first session took us on a peregrination from Morocco to Nigeria, passing through Mauritania and Mali. Sam Nixon drew our attention to the trade of raw materials, including gold and ivory, as well as that of glazed pottery, glass vessels, beads and copper, to name a few. This archaeological consideration of the connections between North and West Africa shed light on the trans-Saharan exchanges of production practices, material culture and architecture. Moving along the Niger River Basin, Kathleen Bickford Berzock introduced us to the area’s rich visual culture, with a particular focus on sculptures of horse and rider. These objects’ symbolic association with wealth and power speak of local articulations of status, which found a resonance in a wider Islamic context.

From one Mediterranean shore to another and across the boundaries of the Sahara, the study of the movement of objects, technologies and ideas asks us to reconsider notions of centre and periphery. The analysis of data related to shipwrecks established a regional maritime landscape that consolidated the perception of the Western Mediterranean as a distinct cultural entity. The creation of new centres may prove problematic in the long run. In the meantime however, work like Ronald A. Messier and Chloé Capel’s study of the development of the medieval city of Sijilmasa (Morocco) in comparison with Tedgaoust and Kumbi Saleh (Mauritania) creates a much-needed balance in terms of scholarship devoted to lesser-known regions.

To delve into the details of all fourteen presentations would be impossible in a single post. Topics ranged from the transmission of techniques of carving rock crystal and sand-casting bronze doors to the dissemination of specific motifs. Each speaker’s individual approach enriched a wider discussion on the nature of the connections between Western Mediterranean sub-regions. With subjects spanning over eight centuries, the day’s lectures led us from North/West Africa to Norman Sicily, Southern Spain and finally to Castile during an impressive presentation in which Jessica Streit discussed possible architectural ties between the Assumption Chapel at Las Huelgas (Burgos) and Almohad mosques.

The Sahara and its neighbouring regions are rarely included in the art historical narrative of the Middle Ages. The consideration of the movement of objects, artistic practices and techniques across areas perceived as natural barriers challenged preconceptions. The lectures drew out the lines of less studied, albeit extremely rich, networks of cross-cultural exchanges across the desert and beyond. By stressing the complex and changing nature of these links, the conference successfully avoided creating overly rigid boundaries that would prevent a larger scale dialogue between Western Mediterranean regions and other parts of the medieval world from taking place.

Giotto’s Circle and Medieval Work in Progress: ‘Illuminated Manuscripts: Art and Science’

The new research presented by Dr Stella Panayotova (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) at the Research Forum on 24 April 2013 is a perfect summation of the huge advances being made in the field of manuscript studies thanks to exponentially rapid developments in science and technology. Already relatively well-known works of medieval art were shown in a new light, as Dr Panayotova explained how the use of digital reconstruction can debunk certain myths surrounding medieval manuscript production that have been readily spread through literature. Such myths were based on the conclusions of a small selection of academics in an age before such impressive technologies were readily available and have been accepted largely without question by a majority of medievalists. However, the work of Dr Panayotova and the MINIARE project (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) highlights just how much more research there is to be done in the area.

In collaboration with the Getty, several manuscripts were subject to a variety of intense analytical processes in order to map out more accurately than ever the exact make-up of the manuscripts’ pigmentation. Here, the focus was on the work of Pacino di Bonaguida, a fourteenth century Italian artist whose oeuvre included not only illuminated manuscripts, but also altarpieces. The work for which he is perhaps most well-known, the Chiarito Tabernacle, also went under the microscope.

One of the most useful ways to use this new technology is to distinguish between different artistic hands, not just in manuscripts but in other art objects also. Indeed, it was amazing to see how delicate and subtle some of the stylistic differences between hands were – brushstrokes, for example, can vary greatly in a way that would have otherwise been imperceptible to the naked eye, such as the use of linear, parallel strokes as opposed to cross hatching. It also highlights similarities in the treatment of shadows – particularly noticeable in paintings of flesh and skin – thereby allowing us to draw links that would have perhaps been too anachronistic before. Viewing the manuscripts under UV lights allows for an analysis of the organic make-up of the pigments, what materials have been used and, therefore, which paints were likely to have been mixed in the same workshop or by the same artist and which were done separately. This may initially seem highly technical, but what Dr Panatoyova has shown is that using science in this way can allow us to give a lot more weight to arguments around the provenance of medieval artworks.

It was especially fascinating to hear Dr Panatoyova’s theories on the knowledge and use of colour optic theories in the medieval period, and how our ability to see the subtle techniques utilised by artists gives us much greater insight into how they were thinking about shadow and light. But this is only the beginning – the most exciting thing is speculating on how exactly these technologies might advance our research in the future.