the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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Up Date and Paradigm Shift

Posted by gninja on August 30, 2006


Hmm..over a month without a post. It seems an update is in order. I am, in fact, very much involved in some preparatory work for The Medieval Art Historian [Blog], which should have a new format and discussion topic within the next two weeks.

For now: a bit of a preview. For the next several months, I’ll be assistant teaching a course on Paris in the Middle Ages, so each week at least one new topic will be addressed. I’ve yet to determine the precise structure and how it will be employed as an interactive tool for my students, but the hope is that it will indeed expand our interactions 1) beyond the classroom; and 2) beyond the medieval (more on what I mean by that at a later date).

Over and Out.

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Portraiture: Part 2 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 11, 2006

Although, prior to thinking of specific examples, I had wanted to write a post about medieval portraiture, it was the set of images I found in a British Library manuscript that compelled me to do so. In Yates Thompson 48 are five royal portraits contained within illuminated initials. The manuscript, created between 1451 and 1480, contains royal statutes from Edward III to Henry VI and, accordingly, their portraits as well as those of the kings who reigned between their tenures. I think the best way to approach these portraits is not singly, but rather, as an emsemble:

Edward III

As we would expect, since the statutes are listed chronologically and according to the monarch who isssued them, the first portrait in this manuscript (shown above) is of Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377.


Richard II (reign 1377-99).


Henry IV (reign 1399-1413).


Henry V (reign 1413-1422)


Henry VI (reign 1422-1461)


In displaying these images sequentially, without interrupting with discussion the flow of images, I hope to have made clear their uniformity. Despite small differences in facial hair, there are few attributes distinguishing the portraits from one another. Indeed the following description could apply to all five images: we see, within an historiated initial of blue, green, red, and gold a male figure in royal garb of red, blue, and white. He stands on a checked ground of green and black, while holding the traditional regal symbols of orb and scepter in left and right hand, respectively. The figure also stands beneath a baldachin, and wears a crucifixed crown atop his head.

Notice that, in describing these figures, I have focused on color and caparison, with little regard for the visage or anatomy of the inidividuals depicted. Frankly, there’s little to say when it comes to their faces and bodies, and it’s clear that the accessories, garb, and setting were of more importance to the artist.

The question that comes to mind when looking at these, then, is quite simple: what is the purpose in creating nearly uniform images of these five kings?

Without even knowing the historical context in which these images were created, it’s possible to infer that one purpose was to endorse a very specific model of kingship. Five kings, each one marked by the actions he supoprted through the written statutes that follow his portrait, yet each one portrayed almost identically to those who preceded him. So, as far as working context-lessly goes, I could argue that the portraits somehow serve to align a group of monarchs, asserting visually continuity among them.

And, indeed, once we become familiar with the political situation in England during the time of this manuscript’s creation, the reason for the uniformity of these portraits becomes evident. According to the curators of the British Library, MS Yates Thompson 48 was produced sometime between 1451 (the year of the most recent statutes included in the manuscript) and 1480. During the first twenty years of this time span, Henry VI reigned, although this reign was interrupted once and eventually terminated by Edward IV. The twice-over deposition was a product of the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with all the kings portrayed in the manuscript at hand belonging to the House of Lancaster.

To be honest, I have a hard time believing that this sumptuous collection of statues issued by the Lancastrians would have been produced while a York king occupied the throne. On the other hand, there would have been justification to create the manuscript while a Lancastrian whose legitimacy was disputed did. To be specific, these portraits implicitly advocate the right of this contested king to his position as monarch by aligning him visually with the four preceding kings.

An objection to such an argument might be that, because of the medium–i.e. expensive, unique manuscript that would not enjoy a wide circulation–such a declaration of legitimacy would not be particularly efficacious. And I would have to agree. On the other hand, such legitimacy claims are frequently advanced in manuscripts like this one, indicating to me that they were perceived to be of use in this regard.

And, as an unintentional bonus, I stumbled upon a manuscript that explicitly endorses the validity of Edward IV (i.e. the king who deposed Henry VI). And by explicitly, I mean:

The folio above shows the genealogy of Edward IV (tracing him back to a monarch whose legitimacy was not disputed). And, as we might expect, all male members depicted are rendered identically.

My intention, in discussing portraiture in this manner, is to demonstrate how, unlike our current notion of what comprises a portrait of an individual, the portrait could have a very diffrent purpose. Not to mark the unique characteristics of the subject, but rather to identify the subject by features that unite him with or differentiate him from a specific millieu. The portrait, in this sense, may be seen as a composite of both values and associations embodied by the individual and the collective.

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Posted by gninja on June 27, 2006

Not a manuscript:


Is it fitting or just plain annoying that the Medieval Art Historian suffers chronic computeritis? Yes, these last few days have been another installment in the saga of the decrepit Gwen. But I’ll have a new post in the next two days or so.

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Update on Non-Update

Posted by gninja on June 14, 2006

A brief note to the medieval art history fans out there in the ether.  My trusty computer, Gwen, ceased functioning.  But the old gal's up and running again, with a shiny new OS.  A new post shall follow shortly.

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Typology in the Doors of Hildesheim

Posted by gninja on June 1, 2006

Yesterday I sketched out the concept of typology and, with the Song of Songs, provided a brief example of how it was used. Typology was a favorite method used by medieval artists in organizing their works. Specifically, visual works were often arranged according to a structure in which depictions of type and antitype were juxtaposed so that their relation to one another (including conceptual and thematic similarities and contrasts) could be perceived.

While there are innumerable examples of typological juxtaposition in medieval art, the famous bronze doors of St Mary's Cathedral of Hildesheim provide a clear and accessible illustration of how typology functioned in medieval art.


These doors, purportedly commissioned by Bishop Bernward around 1015, feature sixteen different episodes– eight from the Old Testament, and eight from the New Testament.

A scheme of these doors would like like this (thanks to Anne Marie Bouche for the handy diagram):


As you can see, the division between the two doors provides a bilateral axis separating every episode from the Old Testament from its coresponding episode in the New Testament. The directional flow of these episodes is likewise important: whereas the events from Genesis leading up to and portraying the Fall of Man procedd in a downward direction, those which depict man's redemption through Christ progress in an upward fashion. It would be odd indeed to situate the Ascension of Christ at the bottom of any composition, wouldn't it?

To get the hang of how typology functions in a visual manner within each juxtaposed set, let's focus on one pair.

Here's the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden:


And, directly across, is the Crucifixion:


The episodic correlation between these two events is not difficult to discern. In the former, man succumbs to temptation thus resulting in Original Sin. In the latter, man is redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ. Fall. Redemption. Pretty simply.

But, for the art historian–and thanks to the artist–things get more interesting. According to legend, the holy rood (Christ's cross) was constructed from the wood of the Tree of Knowlege. In this sculpted relief, we see that the artist has emphasized such a connection through likening the shape and form of one to the other. Note how the branches of the Tree of Knowledge form the shape of a crucifix's ligatures. Note, also, how the tree or cross forms the center of focus in both images, with two figures on either side (the framing trees in the Eden scene count as figures here). In this way they not only mirror one another, but they also draw the viewer's eyes towards another significant aspect of the scenes: arms and hands. Both Adam and Eve and the Roman soldiers commit trasgression with their hands, the tools of touch, tools of a purely physical use. The Edenic pair reach out for the forbidden apple, and the Roman soldiers reach up with their spears and vinegar-soaked cloth to torture the dying Christ. I would argue that this visual parallel conveys a continuity between Pre-lapsarian time and the time of Christ (i.e. our historical time, according to Christian theology)– that is, the purely sensual and non-contemplative dangers of the tactile sense.

Although there are a few other echoes that can be detected in this set of images, I'll leave off here for the time being. But, I assure, this kind of comparison can be carried for every set of typological images in these doors.

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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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