Laura Gelfand

title.none: Weigert, Weaving Sacred Stories (Laura Gelfand)

identifier.other: baj9928.0411.004 04.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Laura Gelfand, University of Akron,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Weigert, Laura. Weaving Sacred Stories: French Choir Tapestries and the Performance of Clerical Identity. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 246. $50.00 0-8014-4008-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.11.04

Weigert, Laura. Weaving Sacred Stories: French Choir Tapestries and the Performance of Clerical Identity. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xv, 246. $50.00 0-8014-4008-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Laura Gelfand
University of Akron

Weigert's book takes up the subject of the relatively little-known narrative tapestry cycles that decorated the eastern end of French churches during the late Middle Ages. More than twenty of these cycles survive from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, primarily in fragmented states. These fascinating series include extensive hagiographic cycles accompanied by vernacular tituli that describe the accompanying narratives and identify the ecclesiastics who donated the textiles to the church. The tapestries were hung over the choir stalls and along the rood screen during the most important feast days of the year and were intended for the relatively limited and select audience of the bishop (when he was in town), the dean and the chapter.

Tapestries were among the most luxurious and expensive of all medieval artistic media and they served a multiplicity of purposes within the setting of the choir including symbolic, political, salvific, and ornamental. One of the great strengths of Weigert's book is to embrace these multivalent meanings and intentions rather than insisting on one or two primary readings. Weigert's book is structured in a way that embraces a "wide-angle" approach in the examination of these textiles.

Weigert's introduction traces the history of these textiles in religious spaces and introduces readers to the basics of medieval textile production and the placement of various textiles within the church setting. This introduction may be somewhat elementary for those more familiar with textile manufacture in the Middle Ages, but the information will undoubtedly prove helpful for many of Weigert's readers as the creation, placement and meaning of painting, sculpture and even architecture are are far more familiar to most historians of medieval art.

The three major questions Weigert pursues involve the selection of the particular saints and the particular stories that illustrate their lives, the architectural setting and its interconnection with the liturgy, and the function that the works served for their donors and the audience. Weigert's admirable goal is to "demonstrate how the meaning and significance of the choir tapestry is intimately connected to its viewing context" (17). This is addressed by the author through the use of narrative, structuralist and performative theories and the author's use of such theoretical approaches is generally quite effective. However, some of her ideas could be theorized more specifically and asserted more strongly. This said, at every point the author is careful to cite specific archival evidence and she consistently anchors her analysis within the framework of the medieval Church and its members.

The three central chapters each examine a different choir tapestry cycle in depth and in relationship to one aspect of Weigert's overarching questions. In Chapter 2, "The Lives of Piat and Eleutherius," the tapestry cycle from the cathedral of Tournai, donated by Canon Toussaint Prier in 1402, is examined in terms of reception. This chapter opens with a vivid evocation of the riot of color in the medieval choir on festival days created by the display of textiles, both those hung within the church and those actually worn by the celebrants and those seated in the choir. The selection of saints Piat and Eleutherius and their importance to the city of Tournai is examined as is the narrative account of their lives. The author determines that the narrative reinforces ties between these saints, the city of Tournai and the succession of local bishops who rule the Christian community. Additionally, the way the cycle would have been displayed above the choir stalls and those seated in them defines and reinforces the roles of the dean and bishop. This chapter is particularly strong in its evocation of spatial viewing and the clear description of the relationship between the chapter, the dean and the bishop.

The third chapter describes the tapestry series with the lives of saints Gervasius and Protasius donated to the cathedral of Le Mans in 1509 by one of its canons and the bishop's secretary, Martin Guerande. The chapter focuses on the donor's motivation for his magnificent gift to the cathedral as, in part, a response to the "economy of death" that developed following the invention of Purgatory in the twelfth century. Weigert briefly explains this system in which prayers and masses for the dead were essential to speed the period of purgation which it was believed would follow death for most people. Gifts, such as Guerande's tapestry cycle, were often accompanied by specific requests for prayers and masses to be said for them in perpetuity. Additionally, the portrait of Guerande, as well as those of other donors, acted as a constant reminder of the donor, serving to prod the memories of viewers whom they needed, and expected, to pray for them. Weigert also describes the political motivations that accompanied Guerande's donation and how this served to benefit both the individual donor and the chapter of which he was a member.

The fourth chapter, on the life of Stephen, discusses the tapestry cycle given by the bishop of Auxerre, Jean Baillet, to the cathedral during his episcopate of 1478-1513. Here Weigert uses hagiography to enter into a discussion of the liturgical function of the choir tapestry within the context of the cathedral of Auxerre. The story of the saint's martyrdom, the invention of his relics and their translation to Constantinople and then to Rome is correlated with the feast days observed within Auxerre and the presence of Stephen's relics within the church. Weigert argues that such connections link the city of Auxerre with these importance religious centers but also regularly reaffirm the presence of this important saint within the precincts of the actual cathedral as well. Her analysis of this material and the writing in this chapter is the strongest in the book.

Weigert's book has much to offer and one is at times frustrated with the writing which is frequently repetitious and lacks the vibrancy of the textiles and the stories they tell. It is also unfortunate that there are so few color plates included in the volume and that these are of such mediocre quality. These choir tapestries are infrequently reproduced but are notably opulent and it is difficult to see them in sufficient detail in the present text.

The book seems felicitously timed to capitalize on the remarkable success of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2002 exhibition, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence. Late medieval objects such as tapestry, metalwork, ceramics and other media previously known, unflatteringly, as the decorative arts are experiencing something of a renaissance right now and finally receiving the sort of attention they so richly deserve. Weigert's book serves as an excellent introduction to some marvelous objects with which many may not previously have been familiar. One hopes that it will serve to encourage further examination of other unfairly overlooked material, and that others will study these works using a similarly contextual methodology, one that leads to a far greater understanding of the role these textiles fulfilled in their original settings.