Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk

title.none: Death and Art--Books by Binski and Camille (Verkerk)

identifier.other: baj9928.9710.005 97.10.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk, Art History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. 224. $45.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0801433150.. Camille, Michael. The Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator. . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. x, 286. $40.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0300064578.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.10.05

Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. 224. $45.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0801433150..

Camille, Michael. The Master of Death: The Lifeless Art of Pierre Remiet, Illuminator. . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. Pp. x, 286. $40.00 (hb). ISBN: ISBN 0300064578.

Reviewed by:

Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk
Art History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Death, whose popularity in scholarly circles has waxed and waned despite its inevitability, is now intensely researched and published; ironically perhaps, since modern society has so successfully "sanitized" death. Galvanized by the work of Phillipe Aries, scholars in many disciplines are wrestling with how people have endured, understood, embraced, and even denied death. Two books on death in the Middle Ages, written by art historians, Paul Binski and Michael Camille, offer a timely occasion to ponder the methodology of death studies.

Binski's book offers a wide-ranging overview of Christian death rituals from about 400 CE to approximately 1500 CE. Based on his 1990 lectures to Yale undergraduates, this book, Binski states, is not about art, but a book about religion, society, the body and ritual.

Binski brings together a masterful synthesis of works by a diverse group of scholars, representing a variety of methodologies, such as Peter Brown, Tom Boase, Arnold van Gennep, Frederick Paxton, and Erwin Panofsky. The excellent bibliography for each chapter highlights those authors whose publications are particularly important, often these entries are commented on in brief, helpful glosses. The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter as a complete essay unto itself: "The Roots of Medieval Death Culture," "Ways of Dying and Rituals of Death," "Death and Representation," "The Macabre," "Death and the Afterlife." Each chapter is then conveniently divided into smaller sections dealing with specific topics, such as "A Good Death," "Burial and the Politics of the Body," "The Tomb as a Sign of Selfhood," "The Black Death and Cultural 'Causation.'" The chapters are brimming with a cornucopia of people, incidents, and information. Binski is adept at crafting his narrative, painting in broad strokes as well as in fine detail.

As with any ambitious work, Binski demonstrates a particular mastery of his material in the later periods--his bailiwick--greater than in the earlier. The early medieval period is telescoped into a few brief pages at the beginning. Here especially, annoying mistakes mar the reliability of the work. For example, Mary Magdalen was neither the lover of Christ (except perhaps in a spiritual sense) nor the sister of Lazarus (p. 15). Despite this, Binski provides a good read that is broad and long in scope. In his introduction, Binski adds a disclaimer that Medieval Death is not intended as a textbook, but as a long essay. Perhaps herein lies the problem. After reading it, I was confounded as to whom Binski envisioned as the audience for this book. Its breadth suggests that it might be useful as a textbook, yet the book is seriously flawed for this purpose. On the other hand, the scholar will find more reliable, in-depth studies of medieval death.

If Binski can be congratulated on the scope of his work, the publishers, and perhaps the author, should be chided for not providing the apparatus which would make this book a real contribution to students of death in the Middle Ages. First published by The British Museum Press, the book is now published in the United States by Cornell University Press. Although copiously illustrated, the book lacks a List of Illustrations and the captions under the illustrations lack numbers and such essential information as scale, medium, and place of repository. Further, the author refers in depth to images which are not published in the book and which are reproduced, if at all, in obscure sources. This renders the book frustrating for all but a handful of specialists. On the other hand, a well-published work like the Isenheim Altarpiece is reproduced, but receives only two sentences of text. Perhaps this is not an egregious error, since the artwork chosen by Binski is there to illustrate medieval death and is not the focus of the book. Binski has provided another survey of medieval death with copious illustrations, but the potential strength of the book--the history of medieval death as documented in the pictorial arts--is undermined by an inadequate apparatus for those wishing to use the book to pursue these issues further and by his reticence to bring his expertise as a historian of art to bear on this subject.

Camille's book is no less ambitious in scope, but his approach is radically different. Camille offers a singular proposal: "The question is whether we can explore a past life not through the things someone has said or written but rather through the images that person has made?" (p. 3). He chooses a relatively obscure Parisian illuminator, Remiet, whose name we only know by happenstance. Camille's book is a masterpiece of exhaustive research, representing fifteen years of intense looking, imagination, and writing. Working from a large number of illustrations painted by Remiet, Camille's book is a funerary panegyric to Remiet who died destitute and anonymous.

Each chapter is framed by an imagined account of Remiet's last hours, written by Camille, and epigraphs from medieval and modern writers. The combination of several voices, medieval and modern, "historical" and "fictional," is a brave approach. Camille transgresses, or challenges, the boundaries so staunchly defended between fiction and historical writing. By acknowledging the fiction of his historical writing, Camille brings the deceased Remiet to life in ways inaccessible to traditional history writing in the academy. We visit Remiet's home on the corner of rue Boutebrie and the rue de la Parcheminerie, we learn about the patronage system, the allocation of work, and the demands on the illuminator to produce enough art to feed his family. More importantly, we glimpse, through Camille's imagination, the reality and meaning of death for one medieval man. This tactic "de-sanitizes" medieval death for the readers in the twentieth century, a period in which people are so uncomfortable with the death of the body.

The illuminations themselves are the object of intense study and the framework of the book. The choice of one man's lifetime of work allows Camille to chart the continuities and changes in Remiet's art as well as his adherence to pictorial tradition or his innovations. Although Camille's main argument is that medieval life was dominated by death (obituaries were recorded more faithfully than birth dates), the book is about the drudgery, the imagination, the hopes and fears of one man's life in light of his illustrations. Camille fully embraces his art historical ability to scour out information where the texts are silent. Acknowledging the constraints of Remiet's modelbook vocabulary and the recycling of images, for example, Camille delves into the medieval conception of death resulting from the Fall of Adam and Eve as encoded in the particular body of the first woman, Eve. Illustrations of Eve's creation--she is made from man, not God, and is thus inferior--become the matrix for illustrations of death. The very repetition of medieval illustration is shown by Camille to yield information about medieval attitudes toward the body, women, and death. Camille offers a model for scholars to explore the potential of images to document histories, of people and ideas, that would otherwise remain buried.

Camille's tactic to take one man's life, art, and death as a case study of medieval death is highly successful. By examining the particular, he is able to illuminate larger issues without losing control of his facts or flattening the argument though generalizations. Because Camille takes a radical and honest approach to writing Remiet's life and death, he reopens the discussion of issues surrounding historiography. The book will be useful to students and scholars of medieval death, art history, and history.