the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for the ‘cathedrals’ Category

Cardinal Joachim’s Been (Mis)Reading St. Bernard of Clairvaux?

Posted by gninja on September 15, 2007


(Gerhard Richter’s stained glass window in Cologne Cathedral)

The BBC reports that Cardinal Joachim Meisner doesn’t like Richter’s stained glass window. Doesn’t like it like a Nazi doesn’t like Max Ernst.

That Richter’s use of the word ‘entartete‘ (degenerate) is even being questioned as deliberate is silly. The term was a key rhetorical tool in the Nazi repertoire for describing art that offended their fascist sensibilities, and has become synonymous in Germany (when describing art, at least) with Nazi propaganda. Its mnemonic thrust is tantamount to that of “are you now or have you ever been…” in America. You don’t need to say the rest for your audience immediately to think of McCarthy (and perhaps have their sphincter tighten up in the process).

But, to the medieval art historian, the Cardinal’s words also recall those of Bernard of Clairvaux, prudish monk par excellence. Speaking of this newfangled art springing up all around him:

I shall speak plainly: Isn’t greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Aren’t we seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? “How?” you ask. “In a strange and wonderful way,” I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?

On vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them.

What sort of reverence is shown to the saints when we place their pictures on the floor and then walk on them? Often someone spits in an angel’s mouth. Often the face of a saint is trampled by some passerby’s feet. If sacred images mean nothing to us, why don’t we at least economize on the paint? Why embellish what we’re about to befoul? Why decorate what we must walk upon? What good is it to have attractive pictures where they’re usually stained with dirt?

Finally, what good are such things to poor men, to monks, to spiritual men? Perhaps the poet’s question could be answered with words from the prophet: “Lord, I have loved the beauty of your house, and the place where your glory dwells” (Ps. 26:8). I agree. Let us allow this to be done in churches because, even if it is harmful to the vain and greedy, it is not such to the simple and devout. But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns? In one place you see many bodies under a single head, in another several heads on a single body. Here on a quadruped we see the tail of a serpent. Over there on a fish we see the head of a quadruped. There we find a beast that is horse up front and goat behind, here another that is horned animal in front and horse behind. In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren’t embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn’t we at least be disgusted by the expense?

On the one hand, there’s really nothing new to see here. The Church has, since its institutionalization, always fought for control over imagery, and as a skeptic I doubt that it has ever been anything but political. While Bernard saw the sculpture in cloisters as distracting his fellow monks from their devotions, Abbot Suger argued that intricate craftsmanship prompted worshippers to contemplate God. Each man had his own reasons, in about the same years no less, for mandating that art have a particular appearance. As, I’m sure, Cardinal Joachim Meisner does.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all, though, (well, the second strangest thing– that whole ‘entartete’ part still gets first place) is how the work that Meisner criticizes appears to me to be the kind of work that no other church-man in history would have lambasted. Its abstraction is mathematic, rather than figural. Funny thing about Cologne Cathedral (and all Gothic Cathedrals, to boot): it’s designed upon a precise application of ratios used for their symbolic associations, a kind of sacred math. For those with access to JSTOR, see Peter Kidson’s “A Metrological Investigation”in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 53. (1990), pp. 71-97. If Meisner knew his own Cathedral a bit better, and the principles behind its construction, he might see Richter’s work as completely consonant with the structure.

That whole ‘entartete’ thing was just plain stupid. Not a slip of the tongue, to be sure. But a deliberate use of language the Cardinal learned expresses the height of moralization in German culture.

Posted in art, art history, cathedrals, medieval | 1 Comment »

Medieval Architecture and (Looking for) Meaning

Posted by gninja on October 2, 2006

The title of this post is a modification of an article published by Paul Crossley in 1991, “Medieval Architecture and Meaning: The Limits of Iconography.” In it, Crossley provides a useful historiography, reviewing one hundred years of art historians’ struggle with medieval buildings and if/what/how their images and forms mean anything. It’s an interesting question, sure, but even Crossley seems niggled by and hard pressed to answer whether there’s a point in ferreting out such potential meanings.

Several times in his article, Crossley denies the importance–and even the possibility–of locating an original intention in the meaning of a building. We simply can’t determine what was the aim of the many people who contributed towards the construction of, say, Reims Cathedral, no matter how much primary documentation we find. For one, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the structure took almost a century to construct. Imagine the Empire State Building taking from 1920 to 2000 to build. Do you think it would mean the same thing at the completion of its construction as it did when the ground was broken? Unlikely. Additionally, the primary documentation itself can’t be taken as any more reflective of an original intention as the building itself–also a form of primary documentation–is. There’s also the matter of determining where the primary documentation begins and ends, what gets included and excluded, and what is “truthful.” In short: looking for an original intention, a First Motivator in the construction of a building is a fool’s errand, whose success is only determined by the whims of the contemporary intellectual community.

On the other hand, Crossley asserts that these buildings are full of meanings, from their foundations to our own time. The buildings themselves, while they cannot speak, have impelled us to speak for them for centuries, and in so doing acquire meaning every time we look at them or discuss them. (I’ve talked about this a bit in relation to Ely Cathedral.)


(Tree of Jesse Window, St-Denis)

For example, while we cannot know what the original intention was for the splendrous windows at St-Denis, we can know how they have been used. While Abbot Suger may have directed us towards certain meanings, others of his time and since have interpreted their form and imagery differently. The “story” of the creation of St-Denis and the Gothic “style” has followed various different lines, all of which have visible and legible support.

So what’s the point or the use, then, of this historical endeavor to find meaning in these buildings? I would argue that some of the most insightful studies into medieval architecture are those that seek an understanding of how the building has and continues to be used (both physically and rhetorically). By investigating the way in which the (to varying degrees due to reconstruction, erosion, modification, etc) same forms of a building have taken on different meanings at different times, we develop a keener sense of how events and artifacts interact, and how the latter may even shape the former.


Did you know that the Bastille was constructed in the fourteenth century? I didn’t. In any case, what it meant then, and what it came to mean at the end of the eighteenth, and what it means today are all rather different things, are they not? It’s a matter that is not wholly different from that of determing the meanings of forms and figures of medieval churches, when we stop to think about what the rough hewn stones of its exterior represented seven and two centuries ago. And what the forms of the structure on its site and bearing its name mean today.

I can think of some other buildings whose forms have more recently borne the weight of rhetoric, different from their construction to today. Can you?


Unrelated document below:


Posted in architecture, art, cathedrals, Paris in the Middle Ages | Leave a Comment »

Modernism – The Medieval Brand

Posted by gninja on September 26, 2006

By the twelfth century, Paris was looking like a very different place. Not only had the city grown in population and size, but the buildings that came to dominate the skyline of the city had a new look to them. Since the late nineteenth century, art historians have been preoccupied with this very newness (what, if pressed to use the categories of style, would be termed “Gothic”), and what the drastic changes in architecture during the twelfth century could mean.


Many scholars have had a go in the debate centered on the “modernity” of Gothic, much of which focuses on the Abbey Church of St-Denis. The debate has received much fuel from the sixty-year-old study by Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger: On the Abbey Church of St-Denis and Its Art Treasures, a work which has earned enough currency to ensure its place on perhaps every medieval art history course syllabus in the United States. The “fuel” alluded to above is the argument advanced by Panofsky, which–to be quick and dirty about it–pretty much chalks up the “invention” of Gothic to Abbot Suger himself, and his subscription to some rather arcane philosophies.

Sounds like a rather grand claim, doesn’t it?

And, indeed, it is. Peter Kidson virtually placed Panofsky on the rack for making such an argument, contesting that the church we see today is the result of architects following the dictates of geometry. What grandeur is there is merely the decorative product of an Abbot who wanted a dramatic setting for the relics in his choir. In short, the novelty of St-Denis “owed nothing to symbolism.”

On the other hand, there are those such as Marvin Trachtenberg, who temper the largeness of Panofsky’s claims by accepting their general theoretical basis (i.e. that there was a conscious effort, intellectually motivated, to create a new kind of church structure), but by removing the attribution to one figure.

Both these newer takes on Gothic modernism, Erwin Panofsky, and Abbot Suger have strengths and weaknesses, though that is not the immediate concern here. More relevant is the matter of modernism itself (which is more directly and explicitly addressed by Trachtenberg). What do we gain by debating the causes and intentions of twelfth-century “modernism” aside from illuminating and enlivening the structures themselves? And, it should be admitted, this latter pursuit is still an important one.


(Ah…I remember these…)
So. Abbot Suger. Inventor or genius marketer of Gothic?

Alternatively. Steve Jobs. Inventor or genius marketer of Apple?

Without the architects, Suger’s notion of this new design (and Suger does use the term modernitas) would have had no physical representation. Without Wozniac and an army of programmers and research and development, Jobs’ mission in personal computing would never have even begun.

What’s important is that, in both instances, we recognize a conscious effort by an individual (Suger/Jobs) to promote an alternative design and make a statement about modernity through this new design. It is not facetious to say that Apple, like Gothic, is a site of cultic worhsip, and it is design and clever marketing that have inspired such a popular reaction. In short, rhetoric is as much a component of invention as is technology.

Posted in architecture, art, cathedrals, Paris in the Middle Ages | 2 Comments »

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?


Posted in architecture, art, cathedrals | Leave a Comment »

Multivalence: A Preamble

Posted by gninja on June 17, 2006

In his most recent publication, Becket’s Crown,Paul Binski addresses various images that have multiple, overlapping meanings, or, “multivalence.” I believe that, unless there is evidence pointing to a single specific meaning, most images do possess multivalence and are informed by numerous cultural and contextual factors. This is not to advocate a kind of interpretive anarchy (this is a terrible turn of phrase; I’ll have to think of a replacement), in which anything can mean everything. Rather, I endorse a moderate approach that sees an artifact as containing a finite number of significations, each of which can be emphasized according to form and context.

For example: a bottle of red wine.

Situated at a table set for a dinner of steak and greens, it represents earthy health and even national pride (see Barthe’s essay on “Wine and Milk” in Mythologies). Yet, that same bottle, set beside caviar and cigars becomes a sign of pretension and elitism, perhaps. In the hand of a tipsy homeless person? We associate it with inebriation and dissolution.

But this bottle of red wine does not inherently mean any one of these things; its meaning ensues from what our cultural presumptions and its contextual accompaniments impose upon it. At the same time, and returning to what I had said above, denying “interpretive anarchy,” picture our bottle of red wine in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and we become confused. What does this mean here? There is no immediate answer, and we have no way of locating a meaning for this bottle of wine (aside from just that: bottle of wine) until we are given some justification for its presence.

What does this have to do with medieval art?



These images, taken from the interior of Ely Cathedral, are discussed in Binski’s book, and provide a useful illustration for intentionally simultaneous multivalence in medieval images. In my next post I’ll discuss how these vault corbels are laden with numerous religiously and mythologically informed meanings. At the same time I will argue that it’s both the multiplcity of these meanings and the dominance of one specific, contextually determined meaning that makes these sculptures so useful in–not surprisingly–asserting the importance of this particular church.

Posted in architecture, art, barthes, cathedrals | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in cathedrals, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in cathedrals | 2 Comments »