The Medieval Review 10.08.04

Heller, Ena Giurescu and Patricia C. Pogracz. Perspectives on Medieval Art: Learning through Looking. New York: Museum of Biblical Art, 2010. Pp. 224. . $45 ISBN 978-0-9777839-5-3.

Reviewed by:

Peter Low
Williams College

This collection of essays is the fruit of a conference (entitled Seeing the Medieval: Realms of Faith/Visions for Today) held jointly, in the spring of 2008, by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), in conjunction with an exhibition at MOBIA (entitled Realms of Faith: Medieval Art from the Walters Art Museum). The topic of that conference was the relevance of the Middle Ages to today's world and the same theme-- explored through the lens of the art object--drives the organization of the current volume, which is made up of a selection of eleven papers from the original participants in the conference. More specifically, the editors argue, the essays of this volume aim to "address questions such as: how do we present the Middle Ages accurately and without compromising scholarly integrity to twenty- first century museum-goers and students? How do we contextualize as fully as possible medieval objects in lectures and exhibitions? How do we make accessible to a general public objects that even specialists have difficulty approaching? And how do we do this in an engaging way...?"

These are important questions, well worth asking and trying to answer, but they are also ambitiously broad in their scope. Although the editors are aware of this fact, and so stress that the collection constitutes but one route to investigating the various questions being asked, the resulting book struggles somewhat to hammer out its parameters, and to find its focus. Despite the first half of the book's title, for example, the constituent essays (with one exception) look only at art objects from the later Middle Ages, that is, from the twelfth century on. And despite the second half of the book's title, in turn, the collection includes two essays that do not engage with specific works of art at all (and so cannot really be argued to concentrate on "learning through looking," at least in relation to the art object). This lack of a tight structure is, of course, a common affliction of conference-based collections of essays where the editors attempt to cobble together something coherent out of a group of papers that speakers have chosen to present. As a result, of more significance is the fact that the book contains many strong contributions and, in its central two sections, has been arranged successfully to highlight the pedagogical value of the articles involved. Taken as a whole, then, the publication deserves praise as a worthwhile addition to the growing literature (much of it in the form of exhibition catalogues) that is bringing medieval art to a larger public, beyond the walls of the academy.

The editors have set about realizing their goals by arranging the essays included in the book into four sections. The two essays of the first section "discuss medieval culture and its relevance in broad terms" (8). Ena Giurescu Heller, in "Why the Medieval Matters," notes how mysterious the Middle Ages and its art remain to us today. We would do well to remedy this situation, she asserts, because of how fundamental an impact the medieval thoughtworld has had on the West. To make her case, Heller presents two examples from art. She argues that, on a positive note, the preference for the symbolic mode in medieval art has produced a similar taste for the symbolic and the polyvalent in the post-medieval world. On a negative note, she posits that the medieval tendency to represent the "other" pejoratively and by way of stereotypes--she uses the evidence of anti-semitic caricatures of Jews in medieval art--is still with us today, in the sense that it has created in the West a propensity to depict outsiders as unappealing, even monstrous, and has thereby led to the construction of an "us vs. them" mentality. Thomas Cahill, in "The Middle Ages in Life and Art," presents a version of the old narrative of late medieval Italian art as the midwife to the naturalistic glories of the Italian Renaissance and beyond. While the article is full of engaging anecdotes, and has at its heart an intriguing premise--that an enthusiasm for the doctrine of incarnationalism led to a widespread playfulness and heightened sense of the visual in medieval culture--it suffers from relying too heavily on outmoded generalizations. To argue, for example, that "up to this moment [in the twelfth century] Western art had imitated all the staid solemnities of the Greeks" (40) is to do a gross disservice to the diversity and sophistication of artistic production in the Middle Ages as a whole and, as a result, obscures our understanding of the art of this period more than it perhaps illuminates it. The value of this essay, in particular, as an introduction intended to set a context for the contributions to follow is thus questionable.

The awkward fit of the "introductory" section is echoed by the awkward fit of the final section, "Broadening the Perspective." Here two more essays are presented that "address topics beyond the scope of the exhibition" as a way of giving readers "a better sense of [the medieval] world" (165). In "Arms and Armor: a Farewell to Persistent Myths and Misconceptions," Dirk H. Breiding identifies a number of common misconceptions about arms and armor (that only knights wore armor, for example, or that knights had to be lifted onto their horses by cranes), explains the (mostly modern) origins of several of them, and offers tips on how these misconceptions might be corrected in the future. In "The Cure of Perfection: Women's Obstetrics in Early and Medieval Islam," in turn, Kathryn Kueny examines how male elites in medieval Islam created expectations of perfection in the processes of child bearing and birth, and thereby marginalized and, indeed, often stigmatized the hard realities of female experience. Kueny then investigates how women (and some men) negotiated the resulting discrepancies between (male) theory and (female) practice in a manner that recaptured for women both a sense of their own moral worth and devotional access to God. The two articles have much to commend them but the reader is left wondering why these two, in particular, were included in the collection. This is especially true in the case of Kueny's offering, which includes some illustrations but which is not in any way about works of art.

The strength of the book is, instead, its two central sections. The first section, "Teaching Medieval Art in Museums and on the Web," includes three articles, each of which tackles a different setting within which medieval objects can be used for teaching. In "From the Lecture Hall to the Museum Gallery: Teaching Medieval Art Using Primary Objects," Patricia C. Pongracz explains the organizational logic and central aims of the exhibition Realms of Faith, and then outlines how various objects within the show could be used to construct an introductory class on medieval art. In "Teaching Medieval Architecture at The Cloisters," Nancy Wu looks at how the somewhat haphazard collection of architectural fragments that make up The Cloisters in New York City can be used to mount an insightful, illuminating survey of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. In "Cataloguing Medieval Manuscripts; A Window on the Scholar's Workshop, with an Emphasis on Electronic Resources," in turn, Margot Fassler investigates how one might go about composing a catalogue entry-- focusing on questions of provenance, date, content, and function--for two single-page fragments of a medieval musical manuscript now found in the American Bible Society Library. Fassler's highly practical overview of the process stresses, most usefully, how on-line resources can be employed (by pretty much anyone) to access reproductions of medieval manuscripts and to begin to make sense of them in a scholarly fashion. The virtue of these three articles is that they demonstrate compellingly, each in their own way, how direct encounters with real objects (or high-quality photographs of those objects)--even objects that are not celebrated masterpieces or in perfect condition--can shed much light on the strange, distant world of the Middle Ages.

The third section, "Reading Medieval Objects: Perspectives from Different Fields of Study," picks up on this last thread by featuring four essays that investigate the relationships of form, function, and meaning in particular objects included in the exhibition Realms of Faith. In "The Living Past: Form and Meaning in a Late Medieval Eucharistic Chalice from the Walters Art Museum," C. Griffith Mann offers a careful analysis of a late-fourteenth-century Sienese chalice. He examines the component parts of the chalice (base, stem, and cup), explains how its tripartite form and moderate size relate to the chalice's function within the Mass, under the influence of the Fourth Lateran Council, and examines how the imagery on the chalice, in speaking of the object's liturgical function, also imbues the object with both universal and local resonances. In "Liturgical Instruments and the Placing of Presence," Xavier John Seubert compares a sixth-century Byzantine paten, chalice, and liturgical spoon to the type of late medieval chalice of the Western liturgy discussed by Mann in the previous article, to make the persuasive argument that liturgical objects are constructive of the sacramental realities for which they were made. Specifically, Seubert posits that the three early Byzantine objects, by way of their function as well as the simplicity of their decoration, manifest a conception of the Eucharistic rite as a communion of the people. The sumptuously decorated late medieval chalice, by contrast, embodies a Western conception of the same rite as simultaneously the privilege of the celebrant and an experience, by the people, of a visually determined spiritual communion. In "What the Eucharist Dove Teaches: Protestant Theology Students and Medieval Liturgy," Robin M. Jensen looks closely at an early thirteenth-century copper dove from Limoges that was designed to contain Eucharistic wafers consecrated by the priest but not yet used in the liturgy. She reconstructs the richly sensory and symbolically charged setting in which this object--essentially a reliquary for the body of God--would have been experienced by its intended medieval audience. Jensen then ponders how best to convey the full complexity of objects such as the dove, as understood in their original context, to the twenty-first-century Protestant theology students she teaches--separated as these students are from such medieval liturgical objects not just by time but also by the seismic conceptual divide of the Reformation. In "A Theological Reading of Medieval Eucharistic Vessels as Emblems of Embrace," finally, Mary C. Moorman proffers an erudite excursus on how medieval sacramental theology might allow us to conceptualize Eucharistic vessels as emblems of the individual faithful's embrace of God in liturgical worship. Although Moorman's argument does not address how this emblematic meaning might actually be visualized in any particular Eucharistic vessels, her reflections provide substantive food for thought. These four articles, then, are sophisticated, challenging, informative, but also (with the exception of Moorman's essay) rooted in specifics--specific objects and specific original settings. As a result, they are fundamentally accessible to any reader and so stand as exemplary instances of how medieval art--in all its confounding but fascinating complexity--might profitably be brought to the general public.