12.02.06, Bagnoli, The Medieval World

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Pamela Patton

The Medieval Review 12.02.06

Bagnoli, Martina and Kathryn Gerry. The Medieval World: The Walters Art Museum. London: D. Giles Limited, 2011. Pp. 216. ISBN: 978-1-904832-96-6.

Reviewed by:
Pamela Patton
Southern Methodist University

As its introduction indicates, this handsome, richly illustrated volume is neither a survey book about the Middle Ages nor a comprehensive catalogue of medieval objects in the Walters Art Museum. Instead, it presents for the general reader five essays on key aspects of medieval European culture, illustrated by a diverse and sometimes pleasantly idiosyncratic selection of over 150 works from the Walters collection. According to the director's foreword, the primary goal of this approach is "to showcase the collection's quality and depth" (7). However, in all but the final essay of this broad-ranging book, institutional investment takes an appropriate back seat to the larger and more salient questions about medieval culture to which the body of the work is dedicated.

In scope and tone, The Medieval World is reminiscent of other collection-based publications on medieval themes produced by such institutions as the Getty and the British Library, although it differs from these in that the distinctive character of the Walters' medieval collection seems to have inspired a selection of essay topics tailored to the collection's strengths. Chapters titled "The Classical Tradition in Medieval Art" and "Saints, Relics, and Devotion in the Middle Ages" enable the authors to make the most of the ivory and metalwork objects in which the Walters collection is so rich, while they still permit inclusion of such distinctive monuments as a classicizing agate vase once owned and sketched by Pieter Paul Rubens and an unusual ivory vierge ouvrante, only recently vindicated as an authentic late Romanesque work from France. Two other, less conventionally structured essays highlight less widely recognized facets of the Walters collection, deploying unexpected lenses to offer insight into both familiar and little-known works. "The Artistic Process in the Middle Ages" examines a wide variety of objects, from Romanesque manuscripts to Islamic glass beakers, in terms of the materials and practices by which they were produced and circulated throughout the medieval world. "The Space of Heaven" re-imagines the sensory surroundings of an array of liturgical objects now removed from their original church settings in both western Europe and the Byzantine East, emphasizing the sounds and scents, as well as the sights, that would have comprised the viewer's experience. Here such efforts would have been facilitated by more images, rather than merely descriptions, of the kinds of structure in which such works originally appeared.

An especially commendable contribution is the chapter called "Earthly Possessions," which seeks to contextualize the Walters' diverse holdings of secular objects--enamel and bronze fibulae; ivory caskets, combs, and mirror backs; horse trappings; stamps and weights from the marketplace; even playing cards and a child's toy soldier--within the panoply of daily interactions to which they pertained. This offers a refreshing contrast to the routine exclusion of such "ordinary" objects from traditional surveys and exhibition catalogues. Additional depth is lent to this and the other chapters by the inclusion of occasional sidebars aimed at highlighting individual issues through focus on one or two works: the complexities of provenance as illustrated by the Rubens vase; the variety of decoration found in sacred spaces as revealed by a carved wooden panel from a Torah shrine; the impact of trade on cultural exchange as exemplified by a Hebrew-inscribed aquamanile; and the fine points of commerce as reflected in a set of Byzantine weights and stamps.

As a group, these main chapters are concise and very readable, and the works highlighted comprise a healthy mix of well-known and less familiar objects, a choice that advantageously illustrates the depth of the Walters collection, though it is sure to provoke at least a few laments for favorite works that had to be left out. Like nearly all books of such wide scope, this one does not escape the occasional oversimplification (as when Frederick II of Hohenstaufen is characterized optimistically as "enlightened" for an embrace of Islamic culture that others might describe as at best craftily pragmatic), but the authors' lively and meaningful handling of both themes and objects make this book's central chapters well suited to any lay reader with an interest in learning about the Middle Ages. So too does the brief but lucid introduction, which in the space of only a few pages succeeds in outlining the geographical and chronological parameters of the medieval world while animatedly rejecting some of its most persistent modern misconceptions: the notion of the Middle Ages as "dark," as oppressively religious, or as mired in traditionalism.

Perhaps less germane for the typical reader will be the book's concluding chapter, which is titled "The Invention of the Middle Ages" but focuses primarily on sketching out Henry Walters' activities as a collector of medieval art. While this section does include thoughtful tidbits about the problems of attribution and authenticity that complicated the acquisition and study of medieval works during Walters' most active years as a collector, it stands somewhat apart from an otherwise fairly cohesive book.

The annotated checklist that follows the book's conclusion is a very welcome addition. For each of the 158 medieval works that are included in the essays, it offers summary object information, inscriptions where relevant, a provenance, and a short bibliography keyed to the list of abbreviated references that follows. Less useful is the very short and rather uneven list of recommended reading, which includes several widely known and fundamental scholarly works on the art of the Middle Ages, but also cedes a surprising amount of space to exhibition catalogues. A bit more bibliographic depth, as well as breadth, might have been preferable for a reader just setting out to learn more about medieval art and culture.

As a book qua book, The Medieval World is a particularly handsome specimen. Like other recent works produced by London-based D. Giles Ltd. in collaboration with US museums, it capitalizes on the visual and material virtues of the traditional hardbound museum publication: sturdily sewn in a generous 8 x 10 format and bursting with large, high-quality color photos, it is so satisfying to hold and peruse that even this reviewer's incurably digital ten-year-old picked it up for a good half-hour browse. In its visual appeal, its accessible essays, and its broad ranging subject matter, this book will prove attractive to readers already interested in medieval culture generally as well as to those concerned with the Walters Art Museum as an institution. It also bids fair to attract its share of converts to medievalism.

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Pamela Patton

Southern Methodist University