the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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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