Laura Iseppi

title.none: Kaspersen and Thuno, eds., Decorating the Lord's Table (Laura Iseppi)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.004 08.02.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura Iseppi, Università di Verona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Kaspersen, Soren and Erik Thuno. Decorating the Lord's Table: On the Dynamics between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen/ Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. Pp. 170. $45.00 (hp) 87-635-0133-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.04

Kaspersen, Soren and Erik Thuno. Decorating the Lord's Table: On the Dynamics between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen/ Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006. Pp. 170. $45.00 (hp) 87-635-0133-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi
Università di Verona

Decorating the Lord's Table: On the Dynamics between Image and Altar in the Middle Ages collects the proceedings of a double session, presented at the 36th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (MI), entitled "Image and Altar: Interrelationships." The collection, edited by Søren Kaspersen and Erik Thunø, the organizers of the session, comprises six essays mainly devoted to a very interesting subject: decorated altars and altar frontals in the Middle Ages, and in particular the "golden altars" from Scandinavia. According to the editorial opening remarks, the authors of the essays (Ann van Dijk, Annika Elizabeth Fisher, Erik Thunø, Søren Kaspersen, Lena Liepe, and Harriet M. Sonne de Torrens) wish to investigate the iconographical and cultural relevance of the richly decorated altars and the surrounding areas from "material remains from Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia that range in time from the early eighth to the thirteenth century" (7). I will state right away that I considered the essays devoted expressly to the Scandinavian material particularly sound and interesting, above all those authored by Kaspersen and Sonne de Torrens, because they dealt in a very stimulating way with what for me are new and intriguing objects (especially those coming from the medieval Danish churches of Stadil, Ølst, Tamdrup, Odder, Sahl, and from the Swedish church of Broddetorp).

The aims of the collection are thus noteworthy. As stated in the Introduction, these aims are to shed light on a wealth of material which, though already known, has received little critical attention to date and, most of all, to attempt to read these artifacts in the light of larger iconographical issues, such as the sacramental role of the altars in the architectonic and decorative contexts of the churches which contained them or the analysis of the rhetorical patterns structuring their décor.

The altars and altar frontals which are analyzed in the essays were part of decorative programs which could include silk cloths and hangings, "frontals made of wood, stone, or metal {...displaying] Biblical scenes or personages, often flanked by colorful ornaments studded with gems" (7). They are, in other words, highly refined and precious objects which, though not rarely found in the European Middle Ages, were particularly well preserved in the relatively peripheral northern region of Scandinavia. The examples presented are thus "valuable sources of information on medieval altar décor" (8). In this light, the first three essays in the collection--devoted respectively to the oratory of Pope John II in St. Peter's, to the Gero Crucifix and cross altar in Cologne Cathedral, and to the Golden Altar in Sant'Ambrogio in Milan--provide "southern" counterparts to the Scandinavian examples more thoroughly investigated in the second half of the collection.

The first essay in the collection ("Domus Sanctae Dei Genitricis Mariae: Art and Liturgy in the Oratory of Pope John II"), by Ann van Dijk, suggests that the depiction of the Nativity over the--now lost--altar in Pope John II's oratory in the Vatican owed to the well established "exegetical tradition that linked Christ's birth with the Eucharist" (34). This type of decoration, the author suggests, anticipated the ritual re-enactment of episodes of Christ's life in Middle-Byzantine art and liturgy. By following the typological reading of the sacred topography displayed in a place, be it church or oratory, where liturgy is enacted, as indicated in the writings of early Fathers as John Crysostom and Patriarch Germanos I of Costantinople, van Dijk traces the line of a link between "sacred history and its liturgical representation [...through] the spoken word, the visual image and even architecture" (34).

Annika Elizabeth Fisher's essay ("Cross Altar and Crucifix in Ottonian Cologne: Past Narrative, Present Ritual, Future Resurrection") focuses, similarly, on a sort of liturgical/topographical itinerary along the main nave of Cologne Cathedral. The key site on the symbolical path (not by chance placed in medio ecclesiae) was the so-called cross altar, in other words "a Volksaltar [...that is] the site in the church where the Eucharist was consecrated and distributed to the laity on high feast days [...] also used as a key processional site in Paschal ceremonies and for [celebrating] the Mass of the Dead" (43). Fisher suggests that, thanks to the fact that this was the place where the laity was allowed to get closer to the divinity, the positioning of the Gero Crucifix on top of the Cologne cross altar (possibly associated with the miraculous one described in Thietmar of Cologne's account of Archbishop Gero's sanctity in the Chronicon) partook of a particularly significant liturgical symbolism by which the figura and the veritas of the Incarnation came to coincide. Since the Gero Crucifix contained relics of both the True Cross and the Host, its presence in such a significant location inside the cathedral would contribute to conflate the performing and the sacred natures of the liturgy.

The essay that Erik Thunø dedicates to "The Golden Altar of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan: Image and Materiality" tries to evoke the relation linking viewer and work of art with regard to sacredness and to the preciousness of the material support employed. He is thus led "naturally" to "the question of the status of the images in a hierarchy where sacred bones rank higher than precious gold" (67). This is indeed an important question regarding medieval aesthetics. Given a highly valuable frontal depicting the Majestas Domini and the most significant scenes of Christ's life, what comes across more directly to the viewer: the glittering of gold and precious stones, or the sanctity of Christ's life? As Thunø suggests, it will be enough to read the beginning of the inscription which runs across the border of one of the beautiful golden altars from Denmark, and which basically repeats what was already written in the rear of the Milan altar: "More than with the golden radiance by which you see it shine, this work shines by virtue of the knowledge it conveys about sacred history" (70). Given this affirmation of spiritual (invisible) over material (visible) beauty, Thunø maintains, that the "golden" altar "assumes a central role in the mediation between the terrestrial and heavenly church" (73).

I found Søren Kaspersen's well documented and balanced attempt at reading the construction and deployment of a "narrative" in the Scandinavian frontals particularly stimulating. In "Narrative 'Modes' in the Danish Golden Frontals," Kaspersen first analyzes the ways in which the frontals treat a few thematic threads (such as the Visitation, the Magi and the Shepherds, the Majestas Domini) and then establishes a number of interesting narrative "hinges" which contribute to confer depth and intensity to the apparently flat panels. In so doing he emphasizes a rhetorical reading of the narratives and "demonstrates how an individual episode may be narrated in different ways; 'modes' vary according to the ordering (dispositio) and ornamentation (elocutio)" (10) that each artist privileges. He also deals with issues of time and with "gestures" to show how multilayered and complex any "attempt at communicating sacred history" (116) is.

Lena Liepe's essay ("Body and Space in the Ølst Frontal") also focuses on "body language" and, keeping in mind Panofsky's famous definition of gesticulation and facial expression as belonging to a "'pre-iconographic' level of interpretation" (129), she "investigates a type of visual communication that is not bound by textual sources" (10). Analyzing the Ølst altar frontal narrative version of the sequence of episodes that compose the childhood and passion of Christ in relation to notions of "space", "mode" (Meyer Schapiro), "contact", "functions of gesture" (Norbert Ott), and "factors" determining meaning (which, according to Birgitte Buettner, are similarity/repetition, contrast, and variation), Liepe concludes that a number of "relational variables" (142) have a strong influence on the overall significance of each narrative scene and of the sequence in its totality.

The last essay in the collection (Harriet Sonne de Torrens' "The Stadil Altar Frontal: A Johannine Interpretation of the Nativity of Christ and the Advent of Ecclesia") is convincing in its attempt to read the Nativity panel from the golden frontal in Stadil Church in the light of a passage from the Gospel of John. In her own words, Sonne de Torrens "demonstrate[s] that the unusual conflation of elements in the Nativity of Christ is rooted in Johannine eschatology; and, more importantly, that the image signifies not only a theological interpretation of Christ's birth, but, also, on an ecclesio-political level, the Advent of the New Law and Ecclesia in the North" (148). The image Sonne de Torrens refers to in the above passage is well worth being brought to the attention of the scholarly community since it represents a highly significant and symbolic rendition of the Nativity, here uniquely structured around a particular "gesture" linking the Virgin and the Child. This gesture which, as Sonne de Torrens notes "knows no parallels in pre- or post-thirteenth-century Nativity scenes" (157), leads the scholar to a stimulating reading of the panel in ecclesiological terms, where the Nativity of Christ adumbrates the Nativity of Ecclesia in Northern Europe.

I read the essays collected in Decorating the Lord's Table with great interest and I am grateful for having been introduced to the Scandinavian altar frontals, especially through the notable examples and interpretations offered by Kaspersen and Sonne de Torrens. Unfortunately, though, some of the essays (in particular the three dedicated to the non-Scandinavian material, and also Liepe's) are too short to let the reader fully appreciate their scholarly scope. The overall impression I had reading these four essays was one of excessive "brevity": the questions they raise and the problems they pose are certainly relevant, but would need a deeper and more detailed analysis to be convincingly dealt with. One example will suffice to explain what I mean: Thunø's statement that the "tension between proximity and distance [between viewer and work of art] was further strengthened by the altar's jeweled ornament, which not only added to the strong visual impact at a distance, but also ensured the attention of the viewer and encouraged him to approach for a clearer and more intelligible view" (75) might not have been meant to sound over simplistic, but it does. Couldn't it also be possible that, given the sense of sacredness surrounding sites such as altars, the glittering of gold and precious stones kept people at a distance? That it actually reinforced the gap between heaven and earth? That it was meant to create a distance between the two worlds? In the economy of Thunø's otherwise thought-provoking essay debatable opinions of this kind should perhaps be offered as a "possibility", not as an ultimate truth. Consequently, as a reader of these four essays, in a number of instances I felt I needed a stronger and more explicit theoretical frame to support the statements made and the conclusions reached.