03.03.27, Sears, and Thomas, eds., Reading Medieval Images

Main Article Content

Christine McCarthy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.027


Sears, Elizabeth, and Thelma K. Thomas, eds.. Reading Medieval Images. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. Pp. xvii, 256. ISBN: 0-472-06751-6.

Reviewed by:
Christine McCarthy
Victoria University

"The reader of the text may be compared to someone at a loose end...what he perceives is multiple, irreducible, coming from a disconnected, heterogeneous variety of substances and perspectives" (Barthes, "From Work to Text," 159).

A duotone cover introduces Reading Medieval Images with a transparent layer of red ochre which mediates the reader's relationship to the cover image of Grammar on the west facade of Chartres Cathedral. Pierced by white text (the title Reading Medieval Images), the image is illusionistically cut, already establishing a specific relationship between text and image, and the potential struggle between notions of reading and the analysis of images, pointing to contextual conditions which might undermine straightforward or simple strategies for reading medieval images. This contamination is a catching within specific contemporary issues of twentieth-first century commercial and academic agendas, and perhaps acutely demonstrates the complexities of the project which Sears and Thomas have attempted.

Inside the book, the contents pages (v-vii) privilege a linear progression spaced by italicized headings (Medieval Sign Theory, Visual Rhetoric, Geometry and Architectural Design, Audience, Style and Ideology, Pictorial Conventions, Narrative, Sacred Images, and Mimesis), which cut through the listing of chapter titles. Any expectation of an evenness in coverage in the sections made by these italicized headings is met with a struggle to equate the generosity of Narrative and Visual Rhetoric's four articles with the anorexic single articles allocated to Geometry and Architectural Design, Style and Ideology, Sacred Images and Mimesis, immediately raising questions about the organisation and arrangement of the book and the selection of the categorizations which slip dangerously close to the arbitrary. The section divisions meander through theoretical ideas (Mimesis, Visual Rhetoric) to medieval conventions (Medieval Sign Theory) to difference in media (Geometry and Architectural Design), to art historical conventions and terminology (Style and Ideology, Pictorial Conventions) to cultural categorisation (Sacred Images), making it difficult to associate a coherent and stable framework to the organisation of this edited collection. These italicised headings are realised and embodied later in the text as double page inserts secured in rectangles of typographical grey-matter to introduce each section of articles.

While the breadth of medieval visual culture discussed in the collection is wide ranging (including discussion of manuscript miniatures, architectural sculpture and single essays on mosiacs, textiles, a sarcophagus, reliquary chasses, combs, and architectural drawing), covering a spread of geographic areas (England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Cyprus) and time periods (from late antiquity to the fifteenth century, with almost half the essays discussing subjects from the twelfth century), I would question Hamburger's assertion that this is a text that truly represents "the variety and vitality of current scholarship on medieval art" (back cover). As, while the reader is exposured to a range of examples of medieval culture, a similar range in methodology and understanding of the notion of "reading" is less easy to sustain.

The introductory pre-chapters (Sears, "'Reading' Images" and Thomas, "Understanding Objects") situate the theoretical premise of the edition and the methodology which is understood by the term "reading" images. While both Sears and Thomas make concessionary gestures to theoretical thought occurring in the "wake of semiotics and structuralist analysis" (1), post-structuralist strategies and methodologies of reading remain largely unrealised and suppressed. This omission is problematic because the very notion of "reading," and the understanding of the image as a readable text, is largely reliant on the theoretical work of post-structuralism. Rather than conveying an understanding of this, the collection seems to deploy the notion of "reading" to confirm art historical practices established prior to post-structuralism (including revisionism, the positing of analysis in terms of problems, and structuralist accountings of meaning), while using a term "reading" which has been given prominence and importance within a post-structuralist tradition. It is this theoretical tradition of "reading" which has enabled Sears to re-situate earlier art historical work as examples of "reading" images, although this remains unacknowledged.

Emerging in the late 1960s, post-structuralism has challenged the ability to simply consider a text (be it history or an image) to be stable and have reliable, secure meaning. Meaning was refigured as volatile, disturbing any notion of a singular or absolute text. The privileging of authorial intention and notions of secure origins was rendered problematic, as Barthes notes: "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" (Barthes, "The death of the author," 147). As a result, the reader was given prominence because they determined the "inexhaustibility of the text" (Iser, "The reading process," 285) and the multiplicity of writing (Barthes, "The death of the author," 147)

"A specific piece of writing thus has no clearly defined boundaries: it spills over constantly into the works clustered around it, generating a hundred different perspectives which dwindle to vanishing point. The work cannot be sprung shut, rendered determinate, by an appeal to the author, for the "death of the author" is a slogan that modern criticism is now confidently able to proclaim. The biography of the author is, after all, merely another text, which need not be ascribed any special privilege: this text too can be deconstructed" (Eagleton, Literary Theory, 138).

These issues, first stated within the context of literary theory, are available within the theoretical discourses of art history. For Harris:

"'Reading' in this sense means radically to rearticulate and reposition; it is an active and 'interrogative,' rather than passive and 'receptive,' process which sets out to create new meanings" (Harris, The New Art History, 41).

Although mentioned as a characteristic of recent theoretical notions of reading by Sears (2-3), the multiplicity of a text rarely appears to be understood as a viable option within the theoretical parameters of the collection. Two exceptions might be Kinney (who, in her analysis of the Santa Maria apse mosaic, explicitly considers the impossibility of fixing meaning due to shifts in lighting conditions, while also acknowledging the co-existing and differing understandings of the mosaic dependent on viewing position), and Werckmeister (whose analysis concludes with "the disorderly cacophany of liturgical and worldly music simultaneously resounding in the church" [135]). Kinney's essay is explicit in its understanding that the twenty-first century now co-exists with any interpretation of the medieval. Yet both of these examples are at the more restrained and conservative end of any post-structuralist spectrum.

Post-structuralist suspicion of a straight-forward notion of meaning meant that "conceptual meaning itself, as opposed to libidinal gesture and anarchist spontaneity, was feared as repressive. Reading...is not cognition but erotic play" (Eagleton, Literary Theory, 142). Such thinking has meant that reading has become a site of play impacting on the form of writing. Reading hence is implicated in the very act of critical and academic writing where the form of writing can not simply be assumed, but rather insists that there is a consciousness of the medium engaged in. Such a consciousness would ordinarily result in a wider range of literary technique for Hamburger's claim of "variety and vitality" to be convincing.

It is disappointing that these key aspects of "reading" are not substantially explored in the edition which offers a rather limited and theoretically conservative notion of "reading." This may be in part a result of the privileging of "accessible" language and the decision for the collection to consist of a large number of short essays (18 subject essays with 11 introductory prefaces). Consequently, chapters are not "sustained analysis," as heralded on the back cover, but rather they are limited by an average chapter length of approximately 3,500 word (six to eight pages) in length. As Chazelle notes: "I cannot in the next few pages provide an exhaustive analysis of the signification of these features of the illumination or of the image as a whole" (29). The brevity of the essays has, for the majority of contributors, caused a focus on background information (the supply of description and contextual details), endorsing an impression of "the art historian's almost pathologial concern for locating an object in time and space and determining authorship and function" (Grabar, 124), at the expense of sustained and in-depth analysis and discussion. This limits the ability to bring to the fore issues pertaining to a theoretical understanding of "reading" or an understanding of the production of the text of reading (though Kinney [19-26] goes some way to achieving this). While Barnet praises the book for its "jargon-free" writing (back cover), such reductive language can also compromise understanding, and disable the text's ability to convey the style of much writing which has been impacted by post-structuralism understandings of "reading." To make a text "accessible" in this context, is to crudely separate form from content -- as if issues of form are irrelevant to a comprehensive understanding and analysis. As Barthes notes:

"In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, "run" (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning" (Barthes, "The death of the author" p. 147).

While few essays engage the specific meaning of "reading," many of the chapters are worthwhile in the context of traditional art historical practice, with the strongest essays including writing from Cahn, Stahl and Werckmeister. Stahl's chapter on the Hildesheim doors, for example, is a careful analysis which concludes with the viewer "[s]tanding before the doors, at the entrance to the western block of the church known as the 'Paradise,'...placed in the same position as the Magdalene is. For both, the next step requires passing through a set of doors. Real contact, which is to say, redemption, lies inside" (172).

Cahn's discussion of the portrait of Muhammad in the Toledon Collection reinterprets the cartouche as an Apocalyptic mark which locates Muhammad as a false prophet and demonic. Glass reminds us of "Saint Cassian of Imola...a schoolmaster...[whose pupils] vengefully killed him...with thousands of pricks of their writing utensils" (144), and Werckmeister explores "an ever-expanding, ever more agitated pictorial field" (137).

Frequently, though it is the analysis of literature (e.g. Chazelle, 27-35), rather than visual media, which enables the argument of chapters to be convincing, and at times structuralist strategies to posit meaning occur without discussion of the complex interrelation of the motifs (e.g., Hahn, 193-194). The explicit use of technology in analysis appears only in Neagley's work (90-99) but here the sophistication of "computer enhancement" needs a better explanation to enable a distinction to be made between this and conventional drafting techniques.

The question, which the collection raises, is what is the role of editorship in shaping the collection to support a specific agenda? In my opinion the book needs more direction to make the collection more cohesive and to strengthen the relation between the essays. Currently the introductions to each section are torn between their role to introduce their specific theme and to introduce why specific texts are allocated to that section. This tension is amplified by a brevity which prevents sufficient satisfaction of both of these demands. As a result editorial direction, and the ability to move between the two very different specialisations of the art historian practitioner and the art historian theoretician, appear compromised.

The book closes with a back cover which has slipped from the transparent film of red ochre into an opaque of orange. Columns of black and white text dominant the coverage of the page. The frontcover image of Grammar, like the move from transparent colour to opacity, has also been transformed. It is partially reconstituted on this back face of the book as three selected rectangular details. No longer in red-ochre their appearance in black and white photography provides an illusion of a new found clarity. These details image the three heads of the sculptural figures who on the frontcover are seen interacting over four open books. Extracted, clarified, and reordered into an obedient row of decapitated heads they surmount a text block: "What is it that art historians do when they approach works of art?"


Barthes, Roland. "The death of the author," Image Music Text. trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), 142-148.

Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text," Image Music Text. trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), 155-164.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: an Introduction. (Oxford, 1992).

Harris, Jonathan. The New Art History: a critical introduction. London, 2001).

Iser, Wolfgang. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach," New Literary History 3: 2 (Winter 1972), 279-299.

Article Details

Author Biography

Christine McCarthy

Victoria University