The Medieval Review 11.04.16

Areford, David S. The Viewer and the Printed Image in Late Medieval Europe . Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. Pp. xvii, 346. 124.95 ISBN 978-0-7546-6762-9. .

Reviewed by:

Kathryn Rudy
University of St. Andrews

David S. Areford has written a lively and accessible book about the reception of early prints in Europe. He has aimed not to study early printed images on stylistic grounds nor as part of regional "schools," as they are categorized in many print rooms, but instead to relate narratives about how late fifteenth-century recipients put them to use. This book joins several other recent titles that have brought this previously neglected topic into focus. Ursula Weekes and Peter Schmidt, respectively, have written accounts of how prints were used in place of miniatures in manuscripts of the fifteenth century in the eastern Netherlands and Germany. For the past few decades, Richard Field has written important studies and ground-laying catalogues of early prints. And there have been two important exhibition catalogues on related material: Susan Dackerman on painted prints, and Peter Parshall on fifteenth-century woodcuts, with an emphasis on their original contexts. [1] Areford has drawn upon these studies by discussing the hand- coloring, inscriptions, and manuscript contexts of early prints, while introducing many images that are studied here for the first time.

The title of the book recalls the great study by Hans Belting, Das Bild und sein Publikum, translated in 1990 as The Image and Its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion. [2] This was a rallying cry to consider the anthropology of the image. As with Belting's call for art historians to study the image rather than the more conceptually problematic art, Areford has succeeded in widening the scope of the image historian's domain to include the cheap, the serially-produced, the disposable, and the abject.

Areford divides his book into an introduction and a series of case studies. His "Introduction: The Aura of the Printed Image" lays to rest Walter Benjamin's famous but utterly flawed statement made in his article of 1936: "That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art." [3] But as Areford points out, it is not the printed image, nor the cookie-cutter saint nor the stack of printed copies, that fascinates or exudes an aura; rather an image acquires power through the way in which each individual print is made singular. Sometimes this is the power of a cult object, as with the case of the Madonna del Fuoco, a printed image to which an entire chapel was built.

Continuing with this theme in Chapter 1, "The Materiality of the Printed Image," Areford outlines some of the operations that might render a print unique. Users shaped their prints to make them resemble textiles, embroidery, and manuscript illumination: this one is hand painted and gilt; that one has been printed in glue and dusted with lint to make it resemble velvet; and here is one has been pasted into a manuscript prayer book; another has been silhouetted and recontextualized into a group of other prints. In Areford's own words, he questions "ideas about the print as a stable and consistent medium dependent on a perfected and fixed graphic design" (26).

Areford considers owners' interactions with their prints in Chapter 2, "Acts of Viewing." Most of the acts he discusses in this chapter consist of owners' inscriptions. Some of these form a dialogue between the viewer and the subject depicted, such as the plea, "Ora pro me" (Pray for me!) written at the top of an image of St. Jerome. Alternatively, some owners trimmed their prints, cutting away distracting parts or changing the meanings of the subjects depicted. In this way, the owner/viewer becomes actively involved in producing meaning. Areford is to be lauded for finding such rich examples that demonstrate how people behaved with their prints, and how they made singular that which was serially produced.

One of the pleasant surprises in this book is the amount of early Italian material included. This field has been dominated by studies of prints from the Middle Rhine, the cradle of printmaking before 1500. Chapter 3, "The Ship and the Skeleton: The Prints of Jacopo Rubieri," tells the fascinating tale of a contested collection of prints in Ravenna's Biblioteca Classense. The prints, many of them the earliest surviving examples of Italian printmaking, had been glued into legal manuscripts by their original, fifteenth-century owner, until a late nineteenth-century curator decided to remove them. Areford reconstructs the manuscripts-cum-prints as far as that is possible and discovers relationships between the subjects of the prints and their original placement in the manuscripts. His work inspires me to go out and try to undo some of the more destructive collecting habits of the Victorian period. My only criticism is that he should have included photos of the legal manuscripts from which the prints were harvested. For example, he describes a page on which a print with a ship had been pasted down: "Inexplicably, no scholar has ever explored the ship's position in the manuscript or the fact that when in situ, its mast was topped by a perfect circle cut from white paper" which is "still glued to the page today" (143). Areford should have illustrated this page. By omitting this and other pages of the legal manuscripts and presenting only the prints, he is guilty of the same thinking as the nineteenth-century curator: that his audience would only want to look at the pictures, not the text manuscript. The promise to recontextualize falls short of providing the prints' full original context.

Chapter 4, "Little Simon's Body," tells the fascinating tale of how prints were exploited to create a cult of Simon of Trent, a boy supposedly murdered by Jews in 1475. Simon's body, laid out on an altar, started performing miracles. Prints helped to publicize the miracles and to demonize the Jews, who were depicted in a series of woodcuts made in 1475--thus, immediately after Simon's death. The prints show the Jews engaged in Simon's sadistic ritual murder. As Areford argues, the images were used as evidence of the atrocities. This chapter departs somewhat from the main themes set out in the Introduction, as it does not focus on users' manipulations of individual prints.

Chapter 5, "Printing the Side Wound of Christ," is drawn from Areford's widely-cited article of 1998, "The Passion Measured: A Late-Medieval Diagram of the Body of Christ," [4] which has been substantially rewritten here. This chapter showcases images that treat Christ's body in pieces, including printed replicas of his freefloating side wound. Areford deftly argues that images depicting the measured side wound function as maps made to scale that negotiate the territory between symbolic and actual space; and that the medium takes advantage of the relationship between the printed image and the prototype. This is especially true of Speerbilder, images of the Sacred Heart which were to be pierced by the relic of the Holy Lance, housed in Nuremberg. The image was to be pierced by the very instrument that pierced Christ's side, thereby eliding the print with its prototype.

One persistent verbal tic will date this volume to the early noughts: "kind of." "[T]he illumination is designed as a kind of author portrait" (112). "[T]he print functions as a kind of moralizing commentary..." (137); "...the actual measurement of the opening made by the lance, becoming a kind of relic...of the side wound" (245). The construction appears scores of times, but I shall not get my knickers in a twist about it. With the small exception of the legal manuscripts discussed above, Areford handles the manuscript evidence adequately and handles the print evidence very adeptly. Methodologically, the book is an object lesson in grace. Areford follows the screenwriter's dictum: show, don't tell. He demonstrates his method by example, which, thankfully, basks in the materiality of the image. We need more books like this one, and with it, more scholars who are willing to roll up their sleeves and engage with the physicality of their subjects.



[1] Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance & Baroque Engravings, Etchings & Woodcuts, ed. Susan Dackerman, (exh. cat., The Baltimore Museum of Art; The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Origins of European Printmaking: Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts and Their Public, ed. Peter Parshall and Rainer Schoch with David S. Areford, Richard S. Field, and Peter Schmidt (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington; Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2005).

[2] Hans Belting, The image and its public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion, trans. by Mark Bartusis and Raymond Meyer (New Rochelle, N.Y: A.D. Caratzas, 1990).

[3] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), pp. 217-251. The essay originally appeared as "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit," Zeitschrift fr Sozialforschung 5, no. 1 (1936).

[4] David S. Areford, "The Passion Measured: A Late-Medieval Diagram of the Body of Christ," in The Broken Body: Passion Devotion in Late-Medieval Culture, ed. A. A. MacDonald, H. N. B. Ridderbos and R. M. Schlusemann (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1998), pp. 211-238.