the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for May, 2006


Posted by gninja on May 30, 2006

Every few days or so (read: whenever my fancy is struck) I'll be devoting a post to a concept necessary to understanding medieval art. The majority of these will be constructs consciously employed by medieval artists or thinkers, although to mix things up I'll throw in a discussion of some methods art historians commonly use today when addressing medieval art.

As the title above indicates, today's 101 lesson is in typology. According to medieval exegetes, everything in the Old Testament could be interpreted as a prefiguration of a specific event or events in the New Testament. The Old Testament episode is known as the type, while the New Testament episode is referred to as the antitype.

Viewing events prior to the incarnation of Christ in such a systematic manner is necessary to the theology of Christianity. Time, or history, is not simply the linear progression of events, but rather the move towards a telos ("end") which is determined by how our actions (and the actions of our ancestors) relate to the incarnation, death, resurrection, and Parousia ("second coming") of Christ. This is known as Christological Time.

Because the Old Testament is the tradition from which Christianity arose, it would've resulted in some serious cognitive dissonance for Christians to neglect the words of God as related in the OT. Moreover, the VIPs of the OT, such as Abraham, Moses, and Isaac can't be thrown in the garbage heap as heretics, since they lived prior to the Incarantion. How very unfair (though, truth be told, the Judeo-Christian God isn't always a paragon of fairness, now is He?). The solution? Read their lives as typologies.

How this plays out in the art of the Middle Ages is the topic I'll tackle tomorrow.

But, for now, I leave you with something salacious. The Song of Songs, otherwise known as the Song of Solomon (the purported author). This extended love poem, to be found in every legit copy of the Bible– check your hotel room night-tables, kitties– is filled with some of the sexiest descriptions in literature and was the typological foundation for a high medieval form of religiosity known as affective piety. I'll get to that at some other time. What's important for now is that this steamy piece of biblical literature was read by exegetes as a description of Christ's love for the Ecclesia, aka the Church, aka the Virgin Mary. I guess if you're the Son of God, really loving your mom is cool.

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Reims, Part II

Posted by gninja on May 29, 2006

(The Medieval Art Historian would like to make a note: today’s entry is on the longish side. Future entries will aspire towards pith. And will include jokes. Hypertext. And dancing ninjas.)

So…on to the funner stuff. Cross-referencing. Medieval writers were consummate and compulsive cross-referencers. Now, of course, the clever one in the room would argue, “well, hey, medieval writers might have been cross-referencing addicts, but that doesn’t mean their artist friends were.” A valid argument, sure. But we’ve got plenty of evidence that medieval artists and writers did not perceive a fundamental difference in their media, using certain frameworks for writing and different ones for painting and sculpting.

How do we know this? From diagrams like the one that illustrated Gilbert of Limerick’s twelfth-century tract De statu Ecclesiae.


The diagram depicts the design for window tracery, accompanied by initials, which are explained in the adjoining text. We are told by Gilbert that the diagram represents the hierarchy of a tripartite society consisting of those who pray, those who plough, and those who fight (the traditional ordering of medieval society–no nation of middle class for them). In a single example, then, we see architecture, painted image, and word being used to evoke the same concept. Different media were not discrete entities, but rather components of a continuous visual construct that reified abstract ideas.

(OK, full disclosure: that’s not the Gilbert of Limerick image; Gwen [my trusty ‘puter] decided she wanted to lose that image; and I’m too lazy to change my description; anyhows, it’s the same sort of dealy, but instead of window tracery, the diagram takes the form of an arcade, with writing in the intercolumnar spaces.) I found the correct image.

So… getting back to cross-referencing. Writers and preachers loved to make their audiences work and have to recall things that were written or said earlier. An important thing to do considering most sermons and literature were not related linearly–instead, clusters of episodes, parables, or histories are connected through thematic similarities or contrasts.

Once, again, I found that the sculpture of the oh-so-cluttered Cathedral of Reims can be understood if we “read” it as we would a medieval text.

Remember how, in my previous post, I had mentioned the desire of the French to insert themselves in the grander scheme of Christianity? Don’t worry, the French weren’t alone in doing this. All medieval kings and bishops had a fetish for establishing their own importance by likening themselves to biblical figures and declaring themselves to be carrying on their legacy.

If we look at Reims as a receptacle for lots of cross-references, two sets of sculptures, carved many decades apart, and on different sides of the structure demonstrate the “unity” of the Reims program. Just a kind of unity that’s different from our own modern brand.

Here (on the western facade, up top by the big-ass rose window) we’ve got Samuel anointing David (yes, the Old Testament Samuel and David), thus making him King of the Israelites.

Sam and David.JPG

Here, on the north transept (that’s the arm of the church– the church is shaped like a crucifix, so the north transept is where Jesus’ right arm would be) we see St Remi and some unidentifiable figure.

Remi Angel Samuel.JPG

You’re probably asking what I’m getting at with all this. Well: St Remi anointed and baptized Clovis, making him the first Christian king of France.  If you’re a French king, you’re damned skippy you want to make sure people think you’re as important as someone like King David. A pretty common thing to do. In this case, the figure next to Remi (especially his rounded cap, which was a very distinctive kind of headwear) looks a whole lot like Samuel. Somone, some sculptor or program desginer, at some point found it a good idea to make this connection. And the audience looking at this church would have easily been onto it.

And if they weren’t?  Reims also happened to be the coronation church for the French kings at this time. And we’ve got plenty of documents including the prayers for the king on the day of his coronation. Surprise, surprise: the prayers compare the French king to King David. Voila.

Cross-reference. It’s all good.

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Reims Cathedral, Part I

Posted by gninja on May 28, 2006


Reims Cathedral. A mess. At first glance this massive, looming cathedral is just a melange of, well, a lot. And it is. It's swallowed by its own sculpture, which is crammed into and onto every available exterior surface. The cathedral has attracted scholarly attention since the beginning of the twentieth century, and monographs on it were periodically published up until the 1990s. What's remarkable about the literature on the church is just how unremarkable it is. Documents from the 13th century tell us about the long and controversial progress of the cathedral's construction (from May 6, 1210 to about 1290), and there are ample references to the social upheaval that halted progess in 1233– the towspeople rebelled against the clergy who had been milking construction donations out of them for years. But, with the exception of some apathetic references to this revolt and one article by Barbara Abou-el-Haj, the scholarly literature on Reims has remained boringly focused in matters of chronology. That is to say: which sculptures were carved first and the order in which they were installed on the facade. Boring. Intellectually narrow.

So. After researching the sculpture on Reims Cathedral I noticed that trying to determine the "correct" dates of the sculpture adorning it ignores what would have been important to the medieval viewers of this church. Instead of trying to find some grand, unified, completely organized scheme governing the sculptural program of the church, I chose to work within the framework of medieval artists and designers, who had an exponentially more flexible notion of unity than ours.

In short, I looked to medieval literature for answers. If, as many medieval philosophers and writers claimed, the church could be read as a book, and if preachers treated the church sculpture as visual aids to their sermons, why not compare the church to a piece of contemporaneous literature? So, I did. And, unsurprisingly, it works.

For example:

Repetition. Throughout the sculpture of the chruch we see certain figures or themes repeated. Like this:

These are both sculptures of Calixtus, a third century saint, persecuted and martyred by the Romans. But why have two different sculptures of him on the same church? Nothing from the sculpture of Reims tells us why– and certainly, knowing the order in which they were installed doesn't help us. But I would argue that conventions from contemporaneous literature can provide an answer. As with medieval literature, modified redundance (such as a literary refrain that changes slightly with every repetition) served to remind the audience of an important theme or aspect of the story, but also to force them to consider that same theme or aspect from a different perspective. In this case, different significant facets of Calixtus' person and biography are emphasized according to the placement of his effigy.

On the left, Calixtus is surrounded by a cluster of sculptures that champion the place of Reims Cathedral within the history of Christianity. These sculptures combine images from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and current events (for example, portrayals of recent French kings) to decalre that the progress of Christianity throughout time includes its blossoming in France, and not just Rome and the Holy Land.

On the right, we see Calixtus accompanied by a host of other local saints whose relics were housed at Reims. These images comprise a sort of advertisement for Reims Cathedral itself. In flaunting large and imposing statues of the saints whose prized relics Reims hostes, the building itself proclaims its own importance. And in so doing attempts to attract more pilgrims, or, more bluntly, the donations of more pilgrims.

I believe that, without this repetition, these two distinct natures of Calixtus (local saint and representative of Christianity's progression into France) would not be recognized. In the next post, I'll address another literary convention that crops up in the sculpture of this very messy building.

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