The Medieval Review 10.05.18

Walker, Alicia and Amanda Luyster, eds. Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art: Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009. Pp. xvii, 219. $99.95 ISBN 978-0-7546-6327-0. .

Reviewed by:

Laura Iseppi De Filippis

The mingling and mixing of sacred and secular elements constitutes one of the most typical traits of medieval and Renaissance poetic and artistic production. One need only remember Chaucer's (or Dante's, or Boccaccio's etc...) miscellaneous compaignye, or the many examples of coexistence of sacred and (at times startlingly so) profane features in medieval church decorative programs as visible, for instance, in the stone carvings adorning the capitals of many cloisters. So, why are these categories conceived and treated as separate and almost irreconcilable in (some) modern investigations of medieval texts and images? Because, as Alicia Walker and Amanda Luyster explain in their Introduction to Negotiating Secular and Sacred in Medieval Art: Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist sacred and secular, while being to a certain extent useful to the analysis of medieval works of art, "[...] were not, as we understand them today, consistently applied in the Middle Ages" (1). By applying such starkly opposed concepts to medieval works, scholars not only run the risk of incurring anachronisms, since the terms used to distinguish these categories "did not emerge until the seventeenth century and later" (1), but will probably also feel frustrated by the frequent "convergence", by the "overlap, making absolute distinctions between secular and sacred features [...] difficult and sometimes unproductive"(1).

Making available to the wider public the proceedings of a double session at the College Art Association Meeting held in Boston in February 2006, the collection edited by Walker and Luyster comprises essays dedicated to a wide range of topics, periods, and geographical areas within the wider limits of the Western and Eastern Middle Ages. The general aim of the collection is to contribute to a "holistic view of medieval art history" (2) by investigating a notably heterogeneous body of art objects with the intent of showing how the binary opposition between sacred and secular is fundamentally detrimental to a genuine understanding of the artistic role and relevance of these works. In order to frame this intent, the editors summarize the main theoretical trends which have led nineteenth- and twentieth-century art historical studies toward an imbalanced perception of the two categories in favour of sacred art, with a consequent lack of proportion not only in the choice of subjects, but also in the reiteration of stale hierarchies by which, for instance, Christian art is generally much more present in Western curricula than Islamic or Buddhist art, while within Christian art certain periods, topics or works receive much more attention than others. Walker and Luyster rightly call this trend "reasserting the authority of the sacred" (6). I thoroughly appreciated the editors' reflections on this theme and their effort to offer as broad a perspective as possible on this theoretical issue by treating a wide range of artworks. I also particularly valued the attempt on part of all of the contributors to open up their readings to literary, scientific, topographic and political references which (as well stated by Veronica Kalas [150], who devotes her essay to the necessity of reconsidering the "landscape" as a determining element in the mythography/historiography of Cappadocia) should be considered an integral part of any art historical investigation. This call for a more balanced approach, including a distancing from the mere "principles of art historical connoisseurship" (151) while still including these very principles among the complex variety of conditions that may make works of art possible, is what I particularly appreciated in this collection, and makes it (apart from a couple of minor trifles I will mention below) a significant starting point for future research.

The essays which comprised the volume are thus meant to dismantle the hierarchical perception of the categories sacred and secular, and propose rather fruitful examples of how an intercultural, fluid, permeable approach can benefit art historical--and not only art historical--research. The contributors (listed in order of appearance, and I will have something to say about this order below) are: Kathryn A. Smith ("Chivalric narratives and devotional experience in the Taymouth Hours"); Caroline A. Wamsler ("Merging heavenly court and earthly council in trecento Venice"); Galina Tirnanić ("Divine images and earthly authority at the Chora parekklesion in Constantinople"); Eric Ramirez-Weaver ("Classical constellations in Carolingian codices: investigating the celestial imagery of Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 3307"); Lara Thome ("Spaces of convergence: Christian monasteries and Umayyad architecture in Greater Syria"); Veronica Kalas ("Challenging the sacred landscape of Byzantine Cappadocia"); Samuel Crowell Morse ("Pilgrimage for pleasure: time and space in late medieval Japanese painting"). I prefer not to analyze each of them in detail since they all rather consistently apply the analytical principles outlined above. I will instead try to trace a few of the thematic threads which unify the essays and demonstrate the validity of the editors' intent.

Perhaps thanks to my zealous endorsement of the dismantlement of binaries (all of them!) called for in the Introduction, I particularly enjoyed Lara Thome's, Veronica Kalas' and Samuel Crowell Morse's readings of near and far Eastern art and architecture. I found the material they presented new and stimulating, their critical approach precise, the iconographic apparatus rich and detailed (except in one significant case); most importantly I was fascinated by the parallels that emerged in these papers between Western, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern approaches to the themes treated in the volume. This is one of the reasons why the order in which the papers are presented struck me as a reiteration of one of the overall prejudices the collection may not have been aimed at dismantling, but which is yet another instance of the many binary oppositions that plague our (Western) general critical approach. The order predictably follows a West-to-East direction (from Great Britain to Japan) which I must confess I find just as anachronistic as a rigid separation between sacred and secular. The editors (3) seem to have been aware of this inconsistency and explain (referring to the inclusion--and perhaps also to its positioning in the economy of the collection?--of Crowell Morse's essay on Japanese art) that "the bias results not only from the editors own specializations [...] but also from the fact that a discourse on the secular as a separate and distinct category of artistic production is less salient in scholarship on medieval Japan." But, since they have decided after all to include this essay, wouldn't a simple, aseptic, alphabetical listing have been more appropriate to the "diachronic, multimedia, and global" (2) approach they postulate in the Introduction? Unfortunately, the "bias" seems to have affected also the quality and dimensions of Crowell Morse's figures, whose reproduction is heavily penalized by an excessive reduction rendering hard to discern many of the details he refers to in his analysis of the Pilgrimage Mandalas. While impressed with the corpus of images presented in the volume, I would have appreciated a more balanced distribution of resources in the iconographic apparatus.

Notwithstanding these relative shortcomings, I must commend Kathryn Smith's solid, inspiring rereading of the relationship between text and bas-de-page drawings in a well-known, lavishly-produced book of hours and her suggestive incursions into chivalric narrative modes; Galina Tirnani's analysis of the religious/political superimpositions in the Chora funerary chapel in Costantinople; and Caroline Wamsler's reconstruction of the decorative programme in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Venetian Palazzo Ducale (though I found the final part of her essay--where she provides examples of ancient and medieval political writings to support her statement that "the presence of both religious and non-religious themes in [...] civic spaces is not at all unusual" (68)--rather superficial). The only essay I had difficulties with--notwithstanding my appreciation for his choice of subject and the breadth of his approach--is Eric Ramirez-Weaver's. I must confess I had difficulties following his argumentation, which I found stylistically convoluted (particularly in his method of passing back and forth between manuscripts), and at times overcharged with names, texts, and references not sufficiently explained or analyzed. My main problems with this essay do not lay in its thesis, which I find convincing, but rather--and I am partial to this subject--in some quick references to memory and mnemotechnics (114, 123). Contrary to long-standing art historical interpretations, Ramirez-Weaver's analysis of a few illustrated manuscripts containing verbal and visual descriptions of constellations show that some of the images "were not the results of a [banal] straightforward copying project" (115). While not part of his principal focus, Ramirez-Weaver suggests that some of these "christianized" pagan depictions of constellations may have also served as "mnemonics". Yet key literature on the subject of medieval "memoria" is absent from Ramirez-Weaver's citations. Given his mentioning of this topic, a reference to this relevant corpus of studies (and in particular to Mary Carruthers' The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, Cambridge U.P., 1998, which on pp. 24-26 deals precisely with one of the Aratus' celestial maps in mnemonic terms) would have been, I believe, de rigueur.

Overall, the editors have produced a noteworthy collection both in its structure and scope, supported by a lavish and relevant iconographic corpus. I enjoyed reading all of the essays, and I appreciated the editorial description of the central issue and framing of new critical approaches. I also liked the fact that Walker and Luyster point out the "work-in-progress" quality of their anthology. Far from simply providing new terms to supplant the old dichotomous opposition between sacred and secular, their reading essentially highlights the limits of too strict a distinction while at the same time acknowledging the existence and even the relevance of the two categories (1-2). And the essays included in the collection reiterate this critical stance since they all, in very different ways, are not limited to an essential, trite dismantlement but engage in a much more difficult task: the conscious reconstruction of more fluid, morphemic terms to designate differing trends in objects which were not simply the result of the skillful handling of chisels and brushes, but derived from a multitude of social, historical, political, economic, literary, geographic and artistic trends.