the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Multivalence: Ely Cathedral

Posted by gninja on June 20, 2006

Similar to the bottle of wine mentioned in the previous post,objects of medieval art could bear any number of meanings, depending on their context. However, unlike the bottle of wine, objects that are created to be seen have a more significant role as conveyors of meaning. That’s not to say the bottle is purely created as a functional object. Nor is it to say that art objects lack any function at all. Rather, it’s useful to think of all things as artifacts with greater and lesser capacities as receptacles for meaning. Oftentimes, the relationship between purpose as practical function and purpose as symbol is an inverse one, with objects whose purpose is to be of use possessing a lower capacity as symbol. Think of a plate, as in the kind of plate on which you eat dinner. Now think of how many different meanings that plate has– sure, it changes according to context, perhaps, and according to the designs on the plate, material from which it’s made, etc. But, really, there’s only so much we think of when we think of “plate.” Now, sure, such is not always the case, and function is not always something which inhibits an object’s ability to bear meanings (see, for example, the first chapter of Baxandal’s Patterns of Intention— he talks about the process of designing a bridge in Scotland and the technical matters which shaped its form, but also what the form conveys). In any case, the point here is to illustrate the scale according to which objects function as signs.


Getting to Ely Cathedral, then. First, a quickie background. A seventh century Anglo-Saxon princess named Aetheldreda established a monastery on the site where the current cathedral stands. According to legend, after hiking about, using a dry rod as a walking stick, she lies down on the ground to retire. Upon waking, she finds that the dry rod has taken root and budded forth, producing an ash tree where a church dedicated to the Virgin is subsequently built. Aetheldreda eventually becomes a saint, and her remains are kept in a reliquary in the monastery, which is destroyed, rebuilt, and then renovated after it becomes the seat of a bishop and hence a cathedral.


I had put up this image, from the vault shafts of the structure (the space in between the arches):


On the left is a floral figure, prior to bloom, and on the right, the final vault shaft with the floral figure in bloom. These, however, are the first and last shafts. There are several others in between showing intermediary stages of the blossoming. Here’s another image (and thanks to whomever it is that’s working for the Australian National University “Rubens” artserve site— these images are fantastic and not to be found elsewhere).


As examples of multivalence, Paul Binski has shown how this flowering sculpture works remarkably well. I should note that Binski doesn’t use the term multivalence, but it works, and I like it.

Let’s start from the loosest association– Christological typology. There are several biblical references to flowering rods and blossoming forms which are used throughout 11th and 12th-century architecture. The first of these is Aaron’s rod, which, like so many other typological symbols, prefigures the crucifixion of Christ. The second reference would be the Tree of Jesse, in short, the representation of Jesus’ genealogy. As you can see, it was wildly popular in art. At the same time, we are looking at the lapidary representation of an organic form and living process, that is, the blossoming of a flower depicted in stone. Certainly, it’s more arcane, but it’s possible the sculpted work here invokes the double meaning of the Latin gemma, meaning bud or jewel. Such a double meaning would be important insofar as the flower bears ambivalent meaning: on the one hand it has positive connotations, such as in the ever-blossoming flower of virginity etc; on the other hand, organic forms are always seen as mementos mori in Christianity. Here, the death that always accompanies the organic is forestalled by its representation in stone. Arcane, I know. But religious officials would have been keen to something like this. To be honest, the Christian meanings bound up in the blossoming flower are many. Far too many to cover here. So let me cut to the next part.

Aetheldreda. If we recall, a climactic point in her hagiography is the miraculous flowering ash tree. Certainly, if one were attending this cathedral, the story of Aetheldreda would be near the surface of one’s conscious thoughts. Visiting shrines and relics was a big deal, and the presence of a relic in a sacred structure always (if its autheticity wasn’t disputed) conferred legitimacy and pretige upon a church. For an anthropological take on why this is so, read Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and Profane (it was written in the ’60s and can feel a bit New Age-y, but it remains to this day a useful study on how to think about sacred space). So, considering our context, the legend of Aetheldredra would, it seems to me, have to be the first thing that comes to our minds, and, pragmatically speaking, the most important association the custodians and patrons of this church would want it visitors to make.

Multivalence, then, is borne out here as a network of numerous significations known only to those participating in or belonging to a certain community (here, the Christian community familiar with the hagiography of Aetheldreda). While the flowering ash tree of Aetheldreda’s story is the primary assocation we are to make, without the other floral / flowering associations swimming around in the heads of congregants of the church, this imagery would merely be the representation of this part of one saint’s story. Instead, it is that and more; it is both event and representation that unite the story of this local saint with the larger legend of Christianity, the mega-narrative that brings characters together into the same script through the use of common motifs. It’s not that every meaning is known to every viewer. That’s not necessary for the image to communicate an effective message. What’s important here is that the primary message being conveyed or story being alluded to is supported by a web of associations that furthers its permanence and preeminence in our minds.

And with that, I’ll leave you with a modern advertisement (which I am not endorsing) for Kenzo’s Flower perfume. How many (oh my God how many!) associations can we draw from this image, and how many of them do we actually, explicitly acknowledge to ourselves when we come across this ad in a glossy magazine?


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