William Diebold

title.none: Seidel, Legends in Limestone (Diebold)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.014 00.09.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: William Diebold, Reed College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Siedel, Linda. Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathdral of Autun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 219. $32.50. ISBN: 0-266-74515-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.14

Siedel, Linda. Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus, and the Cathdral of Autun. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. ix, 219. $32.50. ISBN: 0-266-74515-5.

Reviewed by:

William Diebold
Reed College

Each of Legends in Limestone's five chapters is devoted to an aspect of the architecture, sculpture, or history of the church of St. Lazare in Autun, one the canonical monuments of medieval art, famous for its carved tympanum and historiated capitals. The chapters are linked by their subject and by the art-historical method they employ, as Seidel usually concentrates on reception rather than production as the place where meaning is created. Thus, she is generally less interested in the ideas the makers of the building (its patrons, sculptors and architects) intended to convey than in the meanings its viewers, both medieval and modern, gave to the church and its decoration.

The first chapter gives a critical historiography of the place of St. Lazare and of Gislebertus, the alleged sculptor of its historiated tympanum and capitals, in 19th- and 20th-century writing. Seidel raises here the notion, argued in more detail in Chapter 3, that the famous inscription at the feet of the judging Christ of the tympanum, "Gislebertus hoc fecit," refers not to the man who carved the tympanum but to a historical or legendary patron of the church. In this chapter, Seidel convincingly shows that the contemporary insistence on the importance of Gislebertus was not always so. For someone like Emile Male, concerned with the iconography of medieval art understood as commonly understood meaning, an individual such as Gislebertus, whether artist or patron, was of little interest. (Seidel might well have invoked here as a parallel the famous desire of Male's contemporary, Heinrich Woelfflin, for an "art history without names"). Impressive here is how good a historiographer Seidel is. Now that we have learned that history is not the recovery of an absolute truth but the telling of stories about what we perceive to be the truth, historiography has become de rigueur in modern art history. But simply the impulse to do historiography does not guarantee success; just like writing history, writing historiography is hard work and Seidel in this chapter shows herself to be a careful and sophisticated historiographer. This care and sophistication separate Seidel's fine treatment of the changes in the representation of Gislebertus from another recent, widely-read historiographical effort by a medieval art historian. In the embarrassing first chapter of his Clash of the Gods (Princeton, 1993; revised edition, 1999) Thomas Mathews claims that the early 20th-century scholars Andre Grabar, Andreas Alfoeldi, and Ernst Kantorowicz were predisposed to argue that in late antiquity Christ was depicted as an emperor because they were interested in emperors, each having grown up under one. There is none of this simple-minded, seat-of-the-pants historiography in Seidel's book; because of her deep understanding of what it means to tell a story, she realizes (as Mathews apparently did not) that historiography is more than explaining why those guys back then were wrong and I'm right. Thus, her discussion of the varying reception of Gislebertus across time is nuanced; she is generally not content, as are so many, to rely on overly general platitudes (e.g., the Romantic championing of the genius artist) to explain various phenomena. There are exceptions. Trying to account for the rise in popularity of the representation of Gislebertus as an individual in the years immediately following World War II, Seidel adduces France's post-War shame: "Gislebertus's identity was forged in just those years and was, I believe, a product of kindred patriotic sentiments" (30). But why would patriotic sentiments require one to privilege an individual artist as opposed, for example, to championing the greatness of French 12th-century culture in general? And if Seidel is right that French patriotism lies behind the post-1945 interest in Gislebertus, why the consistent insistence on referring (against French fashion in these matters) to the artist by his distancing Latin name, Gislebertus, rather than its modern French form, Gilbert?

In Chapter 2, Seidel tries to account for some peculiarities of the church of St. Lazare, notably why was it built at all (Autun already had a perfectly good cathedral) and why was it built with the apse facing almost due south, rather than east. Seidel's answers to the former question have to do with the importance of the relics of Lazarus, a very important saint in French terms because of his central role in the Gospels. As for the latter question, she argues that the church at Autun was meant to call to memory some aspects of Lazarus's church at Bethany. The argument of this chapter is reminiscent of much of the contextual medieval art history written in the last two decades (and, in places, its intellectual pedigree goes back much further, to Richard Krautheimer's remarkable 1942 "Introduction to an Iconography of Medieval Architecture," an article written very much in the vein of the old art history, but one that continues to inspire the new). Because the situation at Autun is important and unusual (as Seidel notes, "a completely new building was seldom established in the later Middle Ages to house already existing remains" [63]), I wish she had been more explicit about where her intellectual positions differ from what is now standard. I found her arguments that the church at Autun was built to rival the church in nearby Vezelay to be entirely convincing, especially because they reminded me very much of closely related work by Barbara Abou-el-Haj [[1]]. Seidel acknowledges Abou-el-Haj's work, but also disagrees with her, writing: "This evidence of competition over the bones of the saint broadens the pictures of rivalry between the celebrated centers of Romanesque art [i.e. Autun and Vezelay]. Historians have encouraged us to read those encounters pragmatically, primarily along institutional and economic lines, as an expression of internal and internecine issues of authority and autonomy [a footnote here refers to the work of several scholars, including Abou-el-Haj]. Attention to the conflict over relics enables us to view the struggles between Vezelay and Autun in an alternative manner, as part of a widespread, contemporary engagement with the rewriting of regional history and the construction of local memory" (60). While Seidel has, indeed, carefully shown that memory in the Middle Ages could be constructed in various ways, she has not sufficiently explained what spurred such construction in this case. She appears here to be in disagreement with Abou-el-Haj, but I do not see what cause she substitutes for the "institutional and economic" ones proposed by her and other scholars. Medieval memories were constructed, but they were constructed for reasons. Seidel argues elsewhere that memory operates as free play, based on the interests of individual viewers: "[I]t is neither possible to dictate the conditions under which a certain interpretation prevails nor to censor the responses of an audience steeped in other texts and contexts. Juxtapositions engender associations we might otherwise never consciously consider" (142). This is surely correct as a general principle, but not much of a guide for the historian, who must be interested in specific instances of the generation of meaning. How can the historian usefully draw upon the free play of memory without indicating how that free play was historically circumscribed; i.e., precisely by invoking the economic and institutional (or political, or social, or any number of other kinds of) causes that Seidel seems to reject. The lack of historical grounding for her claims is apparent elsewhere as well, as when Seidel writes in another explicit criticism of Abou-el-Haj: "Perhaps because constructed churches are palpably 'real,' we have preferred to think of them as pawns in a struggle over money or power or as the physical setting for liturgical performances instead of as mechanisms for the seemingly cerebral activity of recall" (76). Leaving aside my belief that it misstates Abou-el-Haj's work to say that she sees buildings simply as pawns, the scare quotes around "real" and the vague adverb "seemingly" keep Seidel from having to make precise her exact meaning.

In Chapter 3, Seidel follows up on her deconstruction of Gislebertus the artist in the first chapter by suggesting that we substitute for him Gislebertus the patron. She claims that the tympanum inscription refers to two Gislebertuses: a shadowy 10th-century count of Autun, whom she suggests was an ancestor (real or supposed) of an even more shadowy 12th-century Gislebertus, a man who witnessed a charter relating to a claim by the bishop of Autun. Because we know so little about either of these people, Seidel has to flesh out the meager facts with a discussion of the role of memory and history in the Middle Ages. This is useful, if fairly familiar material. As Seidel shows, given medieval conventions, it is likely the Gislebertus of the inscription was a patron and not an artist; her interpretation that the tympanum inscription shows one important man at Autun authorizing himself and the building with reference to another is also plausible, but we know so little about the conditions obtaining in 12th-century Autun that it is impossible for Seidel to say why the 12th-century Gislebertus (as opposed to some other figure at Autun) would want to recall in such a prominent spot the 10th-century Gislebertus (instead of some other famous figure from the city or cult's past). To judge from conversation in the halls at professional meetings and on internet discussion lists, this section of the book is apparently shocking to some people who cherish Gislebertus the artist. While named artists are the darling of art history survey texts, it's hard to believe that many medievalists will be surprised by the tenor of Seidel's argument. The artist has been dead in medieval art history for a long while now, not in the sense meant by Barthes or Foucault, but because for most scholars the artist was long ago displaced by the patron as the major figure in the production of medieval art; for example, one has to search Herbert Kessler's 1988 Art Bulletin article "On the State of Medieval Art History" very hard indeed to find the name of an artist, but the text is shot through with the names of patrons. Gislebertus the artist, then, was very much the exception rather than the rule, so it is not too surprising to see him go. This section of Seidel's book is not shocking, but it is slightly disappointing because her new patron Gislebertuses, through no fault of her own, are such ghost-like figures that they can't entirely dislodge even the slight weight of the deconstructed artist Gislebertus.

Legend in Limestone's fourth chapter begins with an examination of relationships between the Romanesque church and its Roman and Gallo-Roman predecessors in Autun, Burgundy, and Europe. Seidel, I think rightly, sees the church as simultaneously asserting continuity with and dominance over its various predecessors, buildings it evokes through a series of borrowings. Sometimes Seidel pushes the parallels between St. Lazare and earlier buildings very hard; in other instances, her arguments are more allusive. An example of the former tendency is her association of Autun's church with the Pantheon; for her, the Roman building's porch inscription naming Agrippa and therefore giving the impression the building is older than it really is may lie behind the inscription referring to the two Gislebertuses. An example of the latter is her much more general claim that the church is "a structure for engendering memory" (103). One of Seidel's best examples of the way such memory was concretely engendered by the building involves her analysis of the famous carving of Eve from the lintel; she gives a detailed and complex iconographic reading of this image, showing how its program worked to evoke in the beholder's mind Mary Magdalene even though she was not literally depicted on the portal. Continuing in this associative vein, Seidel shows how further events in the lives of Mary and Lazarus were then recalled for the viewer; in this chapter Seidel fully makes her case that "In these varied ways, the church of St-Lazare, with its carved foliation, rhythmic arcading, and depiction of miniature antique structures, provided a provocative and compelling setting for the simulation of recollections about its patron's life and death" (109).

There are a few disturbing signs in Chapter 4 of research directions abandoned but not excised from the text. Figure 51, for example, reproduces a 1996 poster for the museum of Celtic civilization at Bibracte. The figure is meant to illustrate Seidel's point about how aspects of the decoration of St. Lazare referred to the Gallo-Roman past, when the city was moving from paganism to Christianity. But why reproduce the modern poster, which seems a sign of a very different modern interest in the Celts, as evidence of 12th-century attitudes? Similarly, Seidel reproduces both a photograph of the lintel beneath the tympanum and a drawing of it by Meyer Schapiro (figs. 59-60). Schapiro, of course, is an interesting figure, the subject of a recent spate of historiography [[2]]. But the drawing provides no information the photograph does not. Nor does Schapiro's name figure in Seidel's text. We are told in the photo caption that "The distinguished art historian, best known for his writings on modern art, began as an aspiring artist before studying medieval art as a graduate student. He discussed this attenuated form, bent into expressive angles to emphasize the short space of the lintel, in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard" (109). This caption raises all sorts of interesting issues (e.g., the relationships of medieval and modern, of art to art history, and of formal analysis to the social history of art; the institutionalization of Marxism in the American academy), but none of these are addressed by Seidel. On the one hand, this is perhaps Seidel's point: individual readers, spurred by images, produce their own narratives. Elsewhere she writes that the earlier sections of the book are "associative rather than sequential . . . providing them with characteristics more typical of medieval than of modern writing" (16) and it is true that the images in medieval books often do not literally illustrate the text, but rather stand in a relationship to it that encourages cogitation. But is this a lesson about medieval reading habits that most users of this book need? And is Seidel's medieval/postmodern challenge to the conventions of scholarly discourse worth the effect on the book's price of adding photographs that do not do much work?

Chapter 5 considers aspects of the iconographic program of the capitals in the nave of the church. Here, Seidel's insistence that there is no single narrative that governs the program is at its most successful, as she picks and chooses among capitals and formal and iconographic modes of analysis to discover meanings created by individual capitals and groups of carvings. Although I found much of the positive content of this section interesting and useful, it also exemplifies an unfortunate tendency of the book; in this chapter, as elsewhere, Seidel spends a large amount of space attacking various beliefs of the old art history, beliefs that, however much they may have been important to Seidel's training as an art historian, are no longer treated as the orthodoxy they were 25 years ago [[3]]. For example, the chapter begins by attacking Emile Male, writing "As visitors circulate through carefully ordered spaces, meanings are made and remade for and by images located there. This process challenges Emile Male's formulation of the notion of fixed iconographic significance that has long dominated the study of medieval imagery" (111). There is much that is right in this. Yet Male's notion that medieval images are like books still has much to recommend it. For one thing, there were certainly some medieval viewers, the highly educated clerical elite, who had minds very much like Male's and probably did look for (and find) complete, coherent, and fixed iconographic programs that were like texts. Second, Male's analogy of images as a book still has utility precisely because times change; texts are viewed today very differently than they were a century ago and are for us much more open-ended than they were for Male, in large part because we are inclined to give at least as much interpretive power to the individual reader as to the author. So Male doesn't tell the whole story, but he still has much to teach us.

In this chapter Seidel usefully shows the myriad meanings, involving invocations of antiquity and pagan past, that would come out of the Autun capitals. But her approach here is hardly as modern or as radical as she implies; in this chapter, many of Seidel's posited viewers sound very much like art-historical business as usual. For example, discussing a well-known and problematic capital depicting two fighting cocks, she writes "At St-Lazare, the image of a gallus would have brought to mind the Roman name for the vast territory Caesar had conquered, Gaul, and the special attribute of the pagan deity Mercury, who enjoyed particular veneration among the Gallo-Romans; a rooster is frequently seen at his side in surviving representations" (132). To whose mind? How many viewers were there in the 12th and later centuries who had the linguistic skills and the antiquarian interest to make such connections. These viewers sound more like highly trained 20th-century art historians (or Male's clerical elite) than "typical" (or even unusual) people of the 12th century. Seidel tries to avoid the criticism that this kind of highly sophisticated iconography is elitist by suggesting that no antiquarian interest was needed to know about Mercury and his attributes, that there was a continuity between Gallo-Roman and 12th-century culture in Autun. Perhaps there was, but I worry that here Seidel is engaging in romanticizing fictions about the persistence of pre-Christian culture into the high Middle Ages, precisely the same kinds of fictions she deconstructs in Chapter 1. We need much more evidence that the stories of Celtic and Roman deities were still active in 12th-century Burgundy before we can subscribe to some of Seidel's readings; judging from her text and notes, however, such evidence is lacking. Theories about the persistence of pre-Christian traditions into the high Middle Ages abound (Seidel cites the relevant work of Le Goff and Gurevich), but those general theories need to be argued in each particular historical case with detailed evidence.

There is, however, also much in this chapter that goes beyond traditional Panofskyian iconography of the sort just mentioned. Seidel, for example, has a number of provocative suggestions about the patterns formed by different groups of capitals and other carvings, patterns she sees as mimicking, for example, the pilgrim's experience visiting sites in the holy land crucial to Lazarus such as Jerusalem and the verbally interesting grouping of Bethany, Bethel, and Bethlehem. Here, Seidel's insistence on the possible free play of viewers' minds is firmly rooted in the architectural and artistic reality of the church at Autun and in the viewer's bodily experience. When Seidel is able to circumscribe the potentially infinite readings of the church, as in this case, her work is most convincing and stimulating as she respects the historically crucial difference between multiple meanings and infinite ones.

Legends in Limestone challenges many of the orthodoxies of mid-20th-century medieval art history. In my opinion, most of those orthodoxies were dead enough that Seidel's coffin nails are almost always superfluous. This overkill makes the book often tedious to read, as I could barely recognize the art-historical straw men Seidel was constantly setting up. For example, is there anybody left for whom Emile Male still provides an uncritically accepted interpretive model? Seidel's basic methodological point is right--different viewers (or readers) tell different stories when faced with the same stimulus and one of our jobs as historians is to recover those meanings. The finer passages in Seidel's book very much help us do that, sometimes by suggesting direct readings, sometimes by showing the way (as with her historiography of Gislebertus) that we have not been fully open to the variety of the past. But there is as much methodological chaff as historical wheat here; I, trained very much in the manner of the old art history, found myself constantly annoyed by this book, not because I was shocked by the new news Seidel was presenting but rather because so much of what she presents as methodological innovation and sophistication is already old news (for example, I believe that all of Seidel's method was fully articulated or at least implied by a piece of literary criticism such as Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in the Class?, a book now 20 years old). For those art historians younger than I am, trained in an era when it is the orthodoxies of the new art history that have become fully institutionalized, I can only imagine that these passages will be even more annoying. This is too bad, because when Seidel turns her attention away from method and towards the church of St. Lazare at Autun and the way it has been interpreted, she has many interesting and important things to say.


[[1]] Abou-el-Haj discusses Vezelay in her The Medieval Cult of Saints: Formations and Transformations (Cambridge, 1997), 22-25; for a clear example of her art-historical method see "The Urban Setting for Late Medieval Church Building: Reims and its Cathedral Between 1210 and 1240," Art History 11 (1988), 17-41.

[[2]] A useful starting point is the special issue of the Oxford Art Journal devoted to Schapiro (volume 17, no. 1; 1994).

[[3]] For Seidel's own account of her training and its relationship to her current practice of art history see her "On Telling Tales," Art Bulletin 76 (1994), 581-83.