The Medieval Review 10.06.01

Hourihane, Colum, ed. Romanesque Art and Thought in the Twelfth Century: Essays in Honor of Walter Cahn. The Index of Christian Art Occasional Papers, X. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2008. Pp. 368. . $35.00 ISBN 9780976820277 978-0-9768202-7-7.

Reviewed by:

Diane Reilly
Indiana University

This impressive, carefully-produced volume is the result of a four-day conference held in October of 2006 and split between the Index of Christian Art in Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Organized by Colum Hourihane and Robert Maxwell, the conference was dedicated to a titan in the field of Romanesque art, Walter Cahn. The mandate of the conference was broad: to honor Walter Cahn, to assess the state of Romanesque art history, and, as Maxwell explains in his foreword, to "explore the interconnectedness of the period's art with other disciplinary areas" (xi). This last goal was the focus of the Philadelphia leg of the conference, and its fruits were recently published in a collateral volume: Representing History 1000-1300: Art, Music, History, ed. Robert A. Maxwell (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010). While the second volume is not under consideration here, nonetheless one can fairly say that together these two publications represent a watershed in the field of Romanesque art. In the first volume, which includes both traditional object-based studies and several essays that examine personal and disciplinary historiographies, some of Romanesque art history's foremost practitioners of the last several decades demonstrate some of the most persistent methodologies used to explore medieval art. In the second, a similarly illustrious roster of participants explores similar types of monuments using more self-consciously signposted interdisciplinary methodologies.

The volume opens with a preface penned by the editor of the first volume, Colum Hourihane, and the above-mentioned foreword contributed by Robert Maxwell. Both explain the genesis of the project, but also introduce an interesting and persistent contradiction. Hourihane expresses in his preface concern for the state of the field and perceives a "relative slowing down in the number of students and established scholars who are undertaking research in the period" (ix and also 4). Maxwell, on the other hand, observes an "effervescence of current research" (xi). Hourihane's introduction helpfully troubles the waters further with its astute exploration of the origins and meanings of the term "Romanesque." Siting the field's stultification in its methodological origins, he asks "Is it time that we abandon what is in many ways the French archaeological approach to the period and which for generations has hindered a real evaluation of the period?" (4). The contributors frequently revisit these concerns to suggest remedies, or to further complicate these assessments of the state of the field.

The first two essays take up Hourihane's rhetorical gauntlet with at once charming and rigorous personal histories of Walter Cahn and the eminent art historians who shaped him and the field. Elizabeth Sears, in "The Art-Historical Work of Walter Cahn," builds from a lengthy personal interview with Cahn and an intimate knowledge of his oeuvre an assessment of his impressive contribution to the discipline. While she terms her contribution a "laudatio," it at once surveys Cahn's own scholarly development and imbricates him within the development of a wider intellectual environment. Sears describes a model scholar, willing to tackle monuments of a broad geographical and chronological range, and to contemplate all media and concomitant strategies for understanding them. Already one suspects that a French archaeological approach is no longer the scholarly norm within the field.

Cahn's own contribution, "Romanesque Art, Then and Now. A Personal Reminiscence," serves as a pleasant counterpoint to Sears' history, and a thoughtful critique of some perhaps exaggerated reports of the death of the field. Cahn observes, " is hardly doubtful that the eleventh and the twelfth century have much preoccupied medievalists in recent years, and ground-breaking studies on a variety of aspects and the history and culture of the period have appeared" (31). Cahn traces the origins of North American Romanesque scholarship to the "refugee scholars" (33) who peopled the most prominent graduate programs well into the 1970s, and shaped the subjects studied and approaches employed by the generations who followed. Contemplating the shifting currents of methodological fashion, he identifies the most significant innovation as a growth in the number of studies that attempt to recover the "meaning" or message imbedded in each artwork (37-38). He cautions, "We have, it would seem, become diffident about formal matters, but confident to the point of promiscuity about our ability to 'read' medieval unravel their secrets and make them speak to us" (38). Not surprisingly, many contributions to the volume do exactly this. He also laments the relative neglect of ornament or style in the contemporary scholarly corpus.

Willibald Sauerländer's "Romanesque Art 2000: A Worn Out Notion?" expresses more pessimism about the state of the discipline. Sauerländer is equally troubled by the field's problematic label. His more acute observation is methodological. While admitting that our volume of scholarly publishing is undiminished, he despairs that the studies are nonetheless irrelevant because they "no longer correspond to the changed interest in the Middle Ages that we now have" (52). By extracting Romanesque art from its functional context, and isolating it within the boundaries of medium and genre, scholars of the Romanesque have robbed themselves of the ability to arrive at a "comprehensive understanding" of their subjects. While I must confess to some uncertainty that we would publish studies in which we had no interest, overall Sauerländer's observation rings true. Scholars of the Romanesque (and this is particularly so in North America because of the exigencies of academic advancement) do not seek opportunities to work collaboratively and to publish with historians, musicologists, archaeologists, and scholars of art in other media, lessening our ability to understand the art's original environment and to experience it diachronically.

Madeline H. Caviness's "The Politics of Taste: An Historiography of 'Romanesque' Art in the Twentieth Century," returns to the development of the discipline's boundaries, its lexicon and the creation of its canon. Through an examination of scholarship and exhibition practice in Catalunya under Fascism and Germany under National Socialism, she traces the nationalist and political pressures that helped to define the field as it is still understood today. In particular, her case study of Catalan artists and their embrace of regional art in the face of Franco's suppression of Catalan identity opens our eyes to some surprising connections between Picasso and the Romanesque.

Patricia Stirnemann's "Where Can We Go from Here? The Study of French Twelfth-Century Manuscripts," once again takes up the thread of unease woven through many of these essays. "Has there been a tailing off of research, an abandonment of the period, or have the intellectual needs changed?" she asks (82). Her subsequent list of recently published studies on manuscripts and libraries alone suggests that indeed the field is still lively. Like Cahn, however, she argues for a shift in focus, towards the study of ornament. Using a case study of the manuscripts of Sens, for instance, she argues that careful study of initial forms will allow Romanesque manuscripts to be integrated into a wider context, a more fruitful and accurate approach than treating each manuscript as an isolated research project.

With Bruno Reudenbach's "Visualizing Holy Bodies: Observations on Body-Part Reliquaries," Romanesque Art and Thought moves in a new direction, away from interrogations of the field and towards more traditional contributions to the field. Reudenbach's investigation of reliquaries eyes them as antidotes to the medieval Christian's preoccupation with bodily fragmentation, outlets for devotional practice and at the same time ciphers for the precious material of the relics they contained. Herbert L. Kessler's "Evil Eye(ing): Romanesque Art as a Shield of Faith," revisits Meyer Schapiro's classic essay "On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art" as a starting point for a sweeping reexamination of an entire class of medieval artworks, from ivories to sculpted capitals to manuscripts to floor mosaics to stained glass, from the Late Antique through the early Gothic, that both depicted and received the gaze. Some objects, functioning as amulets, could protect against the evil eye, while others received the gaze and warned the viewer of the danger of idolatry while engendering spiritual longing. Thus he elaborates Schapiro's well-known theory of "the desire of the eyes" as the motivation for precious decoration, adding the functions of doctrinal vehicle and deflective object.

The following two chapters form a harmonious couple. Neil Stratford's "Verse 'Tituli' and Romanesque Art," surveys the functions and relative reliability of inscriptions, and also explores the ways in which they were transmitted to artists. Through his examples he usefully demonstrates the malleability of words, versification and punctuation, and the many instances of miscopied or misapplied verses. Ilene H. Forsyth's "Word-Play in the Cloister at Moissac," also deals with the unreliability of inscriptions, but explains the seemingly wayward letters and words which leap and dribble around the figural sculpture as intentionally ambiguous or expressive forms. By absorbing the wandering attention of idle monks in the cloister in a complex process of deciphering and interpretation, these apparently "wayward" letters helped them to fight the vice of sloth. She also suggests Abbot Ansquetil as their potential designer.

The next three article focus on sculpture programs. liane Vergnolle's "'Maiestas Domini' Portals of the Twelfth Century," surveys the origins and variations among examples of one of the most popular themes for tympanum sculpture in the central Middle Ages. She traces the subject in monumental art from its origins in apse and altar frontal decorations to its eventual decline in the third quarter of the twelfth century, and identifies it as a quintessentially Romanesque subject, perhaps popularized by the versions ensconced in the tympana of Cluny and Chartres. Dorothy F. Glass, in "Revisiting the 'Gregorian Reform'," notes with some unease the "desuetude" of scholarship on the Gregorian Reform, and laments the use of the term to describe art of a chronological period rather than art produced with a specific reforming goal. Taking the sculpture of Modena Cathedral as a case in point, she rejects the traditional but vague attribution of its reform program to Matilda of Tuscany, and instead identifies a specific set of Old Testament and New Testament subjects intended to depict the clergy as newly reformed after Gregory's renewal. Finally, John Williams, in "Framing Santiago," reexamines our evidence for the chronology and direction of the building program at Santiago de Compostela, and posits explanations for what today are "incoherently organized" tympana. He also very helpfully summarizes recent attempts to reconstruct the two transept portals, and tentatively assigns surviving sculpture and framing interpretations to both.

Two chapters are dedicated to manuscripts, yet in both the authors also revisit the meaning of the term Romanesque. Lucy Freeman Sandler, in "The Weingarten 'Lectionarium Matutinale' in Saint Petersburg and New York," identifies a richly decorated and archaizing pair of manuscripts as a collection of scriptural, hagiographical, and homiletical readings intended for use during the Night Office in the month of November at the Benedictine monastery of Weingarten. She redates the manuscripts as contemporary with the better-known Berthold Sacramentary, and establishes that such volumes were produced only for November, as a mark of the singular liturgical significance of that month at the abbey, and to allow for updating of practice. Given that in such a vibrantly illustrated manuscript the artist has nonetheless employed a retardataire "Romanesque" style, she rejects the period label and instead favors "plain early thirteenth century" (264). T.A. Heslop, in "The Implication of the Utrecht Psalter in English Romanesque Art," examines the impact of the Utrecht Psalter on four different phases of English art, from the middle of the Anglo-Saxon period through the late twelfth century in scriptoria in both Winchester and Canterbury, and through a Winchester student who migrated to Peterborough. He attributes differences in composition, style and patterns of borrowing between the resulting artworks to changes in the "spirit of the times" (287), and embraces the concept of a specifically Romanesque mindset, characterized by a collapsing of the visual and the verbal and a tendency to organize preexisting concepts, material and visual elements to increase clarity. Interestingly, when such systematization is identified, it rather resembles traditional descriptions of the Gothic, but applied with less originality by artists, and thus to me seems to elide a distinction between the two periods. Finally, Mary B. Shepard examines reused twelfth-century glass panels in "Memory and 'Belles Verrières." She argues that the Virgin and Child stained glass reused at Vendme and Chartres served to focus historical continuity by recalling the buildings whence they came and instilling in their new homes historical legitimacy.

Reading Romanesque Art and Thought my thoughts repeatedly turned to the following three terms: self-consciousness, interdisciplinarity, and the troubled name, Romanesque. These essays, in the breadth of their subject matter and chronology and the sheer intellectual energy expended in their creation, testify to the health of the field and argue against its methodological stultification. Individual contributions demonstrate that the problem identified in the early chapters may be more terminological than genuine. Indeed, as Hourihane suggests, fewer students may be entering the field of "Romanesque Art" today than twenty or thirty years ago, but this may simply be an issue of self-definition. One fluid and interdisciplinary study of a famous illuminated Romanesque manuscript was recently published by Fiona Griffiths, an historian. Herbert Kessler, who in his essay synthesized art from the Late Antique through the Gothic to explain a family of Romanesque motifs, would undoubtedly, if asked, not restrict himself to the label "Romanesque art historian." None of the methodologies employed herein are specific to Romanesque art, and many of the artworks featured slip easily from under Romanesque's wings (such as the Liber matutinale examined by Sandler, and the Belles Verrières surveyed by Shepherd). While certain monuments can still be fruitfully described as Romanesque (on this see, most recently, Linda Seidel, "Rethinking 'Romanesque;' Re-engaging Roman[z]," Gesta 45 [2006]), for others traditionally included under this umbrella, as many contributors to this volume have pointed out, the term Romanesque is at best inexact and potentially meaningless. We have no replacement for this field designation, unlike those unfortunate scholars of that period formerly known as The Renaissance who now have to wrestle with the equally problematic term "Early Modern." Does this hint that the field for which "Romanesque" has been used as a handy sobriquet may have already ceased to exist? Perhaps, as in this book's companion volume, Representing History, 1000-1300, these artworks have rejoined the larger and very healthy current of Medieval art and thought, open to examination by more scholars and in broader contexts than the restrictive field boundary Romanesque allowed.