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.

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.