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13.06.10, Eming, Rasmussen, and Starkey, eds., Visuality and Materiality in the story of Tristan and Isolde

13.06.10, Eming, Rasmussen, and Starkey, eds., Visuality and Materiality in the story of Tristan and Isolde

Visuality and Materiality in the Story of Tristan and Isolde brings together twelve papers presented at a 2007 conference of the same name. One of the stated aims of the organisers, who are also the editors of this volume, was to promote interdisciplinary academic discussion that reflects the "pan-European and cross-medial nature of the surviving medieval evidence of the story of Tristan and Isolde" (1). "Visuality" and "Materiality" are flexible concepts. The editors write that, "visuality and materiality function like moving indicators along a single scale of analysis...The visual/visibility becomes visuality when it refers to the whole complex of the production, perception, and cultural locations of the story. The material/medial becomes materiality when it refers to the means of production and materials used and their typical proliferations" (3). These theoretical concepts are cited and used singly and together in many ways in these articles, sometimes in several ways within a single essay, creating a kaleidoscope effect that is both enriching and occasionally dizzying. The majority of the contributions are not interdisciplinary in themselves, but taken together they cover an impressive range of genres and media across a broad chronological spectrum.

The essays in Part I ("Courtly Bodies, Seeing, and Emotions") deal with visuality, seeing, visibility and related concepts in literary versions of the Tristan story, primarily that of Gottfried von Strassburg. Jan-Dirk Müller looks at "light", visibility and the public gaze of the court that legitimate the love of Tristan's parents, Riwalin and Blanscheflur and, that in contrast, drive Tristan and Isolde's love into shadows or into an "in-between" space. Haiko Wandhoff explores the nature and function of the Cave of the Lovers in Gottfried's poem: "the first explicit allegorical exegesis performed in German secular poetry" (41). The marvellously crafted cave is a place where Tristan and Isolde can find refuge and can freely and truly love. Its description is also the occasion for Gottfried's excursus about poetry, and, Wandhoff suggests, it is in poetic art that love itself can be found. The character of Tristan and the narrator Gottfried both demonstrate that "our way to true love...leads through love as represented in art" (53). James Schultz deals with a problematic element in the Tristan narrative: the love potion. Asking the question, "Why do Tristan and Isolde fall in love and want to make love?", Schultz argues that the answer provided in the poems, the love potion, is actually an evasion of the question (what Schultz terms "the Great Refusal"). The potion removes the need to explain the origin of the lovers' desire, so that the poet can more freely explore secular and sexual love. In the final essay of Part I, Ludger Lieb deals with a later medieval development of Gottfried's presentation of "Tristan love" in several Minnereden (discourses on love in rhyming couplets) which describe encounters in which protagonists learn to see personified love face to face in a "second world" accessible and visible only to lovers.

Part II ("Media, Representation, and Performance") opens with Michael Curschmann deftly tracing the matière of Tristan across seven centuries in verse and prose, in allusive iconic images, and finally in Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse. Aspects of materiality in staged and in printed drama are considered by Elke Koch with respect to Hans Sachs's Tragedia mit 23 personen, von der strengen lieb herr Tristrant mit der schönen königin Isalden. On the printed page, for example, stage directions visually resemble articulating features of non-dramatic narrative texts, such as captions or chapter headings, but they also serve as links between monologues, making the printed drama more readable. Koch also discusses "the possible implications that the materiality of the body in performance could have for Sach's aesthetic strategy of containment" (141). On the stage, the material bodies of the actors may have the effect of distancing the viewer from what might be understood as the dangerous emotions of "Tristan love."

Two following contributions deal with another medium: wall paintings of two very different types. The intriguing murals in the hall of the château of St Floret in the Auvergne (ca. 1350-60) are based for the most part on scenes from the version of the Tristan story in the Meliadus of Rusticiano da Pisa and constitute the most extensive cycle of wall paintings based on a romance to survive in France. Amanda Luyster examines the images, the accompanying inscriptions and their placement in the room to arrive at a careful and convincing interpretation in which the disposition of the paintings in the architectural space enables the viewer to experience a three-dimensional and temporal narrative. Luyster also places these unusual wall paintings in a wider art-historical and cultural context by linking them with contemporary religious mural cycles. In contrast to the deep engagement with the content of the depicted narrative at St Floret, the late-fourteenth-century Florentine mural paintings examined by Klaus Krüger were valued more for their skilful execution, their connotations of luxury, and for their aristocratic associations. Krüger cautions that nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars may have been overeager to identify and focus on scenes from literary narratives, such as Tristan, in decorative schemes that for their patrons were part of a broader aesthetic of social self-fashioning.

Part III ("The Visual Culture of Tristan") opens with Martin Baisch's "Discourses of Curiosity: The Materiality of Meaning in Edition Studies." It is one of the shortest but most challenging pieces in the volume, attempting to bring together two senses of "materiality": the "materiality of the transmission of medieval literature" by means of physical manuscripts with their differing texts and "the materiality of meaning itself." Baisch's examples, analysing the poetic commentaries in Gottfried's poem as transmitted by the abridged text in the mid-thirteenth-century manuscript (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbiblothek, cgm 51) are more clearly presented than the theoretical framework, which needs more space than a short article can afford and which may be difficult for a reader to assimilate if not already familiar with the scholarly discourse to which his essay contributes.

The three extant illustrated manuscripts of Gottfried's Tristan are the focus of a joint study by Elke Brüggen and Hans-Joachim Ziegeler. Concentrating for the sake of comparison on the depictions of the Riwalin and Blanscheflur story, the authors describe the pictorial treatment of the narrative and examine the placement and function of the illuminations in the respective manuscripts (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, cgm 51; Cologne, Historisches Archiv der Stadt, W*kl.f88; Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 14697). Their analysis of the late-medieval Brussels manuscript is especially welcome, as this richly-illustrated codex has not received as much attention from Germanists as the Munich manuscript. Brüggen and Ziegeler offer new insights on the relationship of the miniatures to chapter headings and to the physical structure of the text and manuscript.

Surveying a range of visual representations associated with Tristan, Stephanie Cain Van D'Elden identifies scenes that are so specific to the Tristan story that they can be identified as such by viewers even when there is no accompanying text (as frequently occurs on objects such as carved caskets). Other types of scenes, whether generic or "quasi-specific," may contribute significantly to a visual narrative but cannot be identified if removed from a specific context. The relatively large number and variety of surviving examples of Tristan imagery provide a corpus for a methodology that might be applied to other visual narratives as well. Finally, Margaret Alison Stones provides a rapid survey of illuminated French manuscripts of the Tristan tradition. Because of the large number of Tristan manuscripts and existing studies of stylistically-related works, she is able to place Tristan manuscripts in the context of contemporary manuscript production both secular and religious, and to consider patrons and readership. Her piece concludes with an annotated list of manuscripts that in itself constitutes a valuable resource.

Readers will appreciate some of the material and visual features of this volume. There are a large number of illustrations, both colour and black and white, which are helpfully placed in the text. Anticipating that the book will have a readership from several disciplines, the editors arranged for quotations from literary texts and secondary sources in both the body of the text and in the notes to be accompanied by translations into English. The inclusion of an index to the whole volume also greatly increases the book's usefulness, although the index itself is rather uneven. Some manuscripts, for example, are indexed by their location and signature numbers (as is common practice), while others, rather puzzlingly, are listed only by their informal name (e.g. "Brussels manuscript", "Heidelberg manuscript") even though they are more fully cited in the relevant articles and in the list of illustrations. But this is a relatively minor quibble when one considers that many similar compilations are produced without an index.

The editors are to be congratulated for a thought-provoking introductory essay and for producing collection that conveys current thinking about some of the many aspects and manifestations of the story of Tristan and Isolde. It is a positive sign that the reader of these very different studies will wish that the discussions that took place at the conference could also have been included.