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13.10.24, Schuffels, Das Brunograbmal im Dom zu Hildesheim

13.10.24, Schuffels, Das Brunograbmal im Dom zu Hildesheim

The funerary monument of Presbyter Bruno in Hildesheim Cathedral is one of the most astonishing memorial sculptures to survive from the decades around 1200. Divided into three registers and capped with a pointed trefoil arch, the object is currently installed vertically against a wall in the cathedral cloister, and gives an impression akin to a lancet of stained glass translated into stone. It remains unclear whether it was placed upright or laid flat in its original location, but either way, the monument represents a significant departure from the recumbent effigy type that is usually encountered in medieval tomb sculpture. The large bottom register shows Bruno as a corpse, wrapped in a delicate shroud and lovingly tended by six smaller figures: two clerics near his face, a pair of paupers at his side, and two more beggars curled at his feet. A smaller middle register depicts his joyous soul being lifted to heaven by a pair of winged angels, giving the composition a vertical thrust that culminates in the top register, where a half-length bust of Christ raises one hand in blessing and holds an inscribed tablet in the other. The sensitive carving and balanced arrangement of these figures is framed by a series of inscriptions that identify Bruno as a priest who gave generously to the poor, appealing to Christ to give Bruno joy in return for his charity, and quoting two familiar biblical verses, Matthew 25:34 and 25:40, that equate caring for the poor with caring for Christ himself.

Christian Schuffels has written a detailed and attractive monograph on this unique work. Based on the author's 2004 dissertation, the volume provides a useful compendium of source material: Schuffels has clearly scoured several libraries and archives for every scrap of surviving information about Bruno's life and legacy, as well as identifying visual and textual sources that inform his monument. The book is divided into three sections: a short biographical sketch of Bruno (9-30); a lengthy discussion of the sculpture (31-102), and an epilogue that delves into its early modern reception (103-113). The volume closes with an appendix of medieval and early modern textual sources (115-127), and includes color plates with excellent photographs of the monument and various comparative images (137-160). The book thus provides valuable information on a highly interesting sculpture, and will remain an indispensable resource for readers wishing to know more about Bruno and the artistic and intellectual culture of his time.

The advantage of a monograph is that it allows the object to be presented in detail, and viewed from multiple analytic angles. The disadvantage, which is all too evident in the present volume, is that an overly narrow focus can produce a distorted view of the larger context that produced the object at hand. For example, the opening biography presents a coherent summary of Bruno's fairly well-documented career as cantor, priest, and cellarer before his death in 1200. It is marked, however, by a tendency to flatten the complexity of twelfth-century Hildesheim into a simplified frame, highlighting Bruno's individual accomplishments at the expense of painting a fuller picture of the spheres that he inhabited. Even as the author asserts Bruno's important place as a leading member of his community, the reader is left to wonder whether the surviving sources justify this interpretation, and if the monument is as closely informed by the details of Bruno's life as Schuffels suggests. It is also possible that the monument was commissioned after Bruno had died, that he was chosen as a subject because of his role as cellarer, and that the emphasis on charity reflects his office rather than his personal choices. By presenting the biographical material as a preface to the monument, rather than in dialogue with it, Schuffels loses an opportunity to investigate the role of the individual in Romanesque art, and with it the chance to move the discussion beyond the details of Bruno's personal life towards the larger issues of agency and identity that permeate monastic sculpture in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The main portion of the book ("Das Monument--Skulptur und Inschriften auf dem Brunograbmal") is divided into sections that offer a description ("Beschreibung," 31-36), a close reading of the inscriptions ("Die Inschriften," 36-53), an exploration of comparative materials ("Bilderzählung und Text," 53-87), a discussion of the date and original location of the tomb ("Datierung und ursprüngliche Grabgestalt," 87-101), and a short summary ("Zusammenfassung," 102). It is difficult to wait until page 87, in a book that ends on page 113, to read about date and location. It is also confusing to find this section so far removed from the discussion of style on pages 34-36, which concludes that the sculpture offers striking evidence ("ein beachtliches Zeugnis," 36) of the high quality of art in Hildesheim at the end of the twelfth century. One problem here is that, given that Bruno died on 17 December 1200, it is hardly certain that the tomb was carved in the late twelfth (rather than early thirteenth) century. This is a small point, but it is tied to the author's problematic assumption that Bruno was the patron of his tomb, which is possible, but not probable. Very few funerary sculptures from this era were commissioned by the people that they commemorate; many more were posthumous creations. This renders the firmness with which Schuffels asserts Bruno's patronage untenable (87, for example), and makes it all the more puzzling that evidence for dating the monument to his lifetime is not introduced at the outset. The author's insistence that the tomb was once installed horizontally is similarly frustrating (98-102), given that the sensitively carved image of Christ would have looked strange lying flat over a tomb, potentially set over Bruno's own face beneath the slab. The strangeness of this potential juxtaposition does not make horizontal placement impossible, but it is a point that deserves to be discussed, or at least mentioned, and not passed over in silence.

Setting Bruno's death uncritically as a terminus ante quem for the object, Schuffels limits the section on dating to comparison with materials in Hildesheim. While this gives the reader a good sense of local artistic activity, it ignores the significant corpus of closely related sculpture that exists at other sites in Lower Saxony and its surroundings. Isolating Hildesheim from the rest of the region makes little sense in light of the fact that artists and patrons traveled widely in this period. The discussion of style is further weakened by the number of comparative materials that are discussed but not illustrated (88-91, for example), an omission that is especially perplexing given that several manuscript pages without illumination are reproduced simply because their texts mention Bruno by name. It is wonderful to see handsome images of important Hildesheim charters (such as color plate 13), but it is unfortunate that this seems to have come at the expense of pictures that would have been more useful for the author's visual arguments.

While Schuffels limits stylistic evidence to Hildesheim, his iconographic comparisons are conversely far-flung, looking past the Holy Roman Empire to Italy, Spain, and France. It is striking that the baptismal font at Freckenhorst is mentioned only briefly (49), as is the effigy of Reinhildis of Riesenbeck, which bears the other key image of an ascending soul on a Romanesque tomb in Germany (80-81). Neither of these monuments is illustrated, despite the fact that they are closer in style and content than the tombs in Spain (León) and Italy (Lammari) that are discussed at length and reproduced in color. The argument that such geographically and temporally disparate tombs are relevant because they were also made for clerics feels forced, as does the assertion that "clerical tombs" constitute a coherent genre of medieval art. It is difficult, for example, to accept that the late thirteenth-century plaque for Aymeric of Toulouse (76-77) sheds light on Bruno's tomb simply because Aymeric and Bruno were both canons at their respective cathedrals. The observation that both sculptures share iconographic elements (such as images of Christ, angels, and the souls and bodies of the dead) is undercut by the fact that they belong to very different modes of artistic expression. Schuffels attributes the enormous geographic, temporal, and stylistic gaps between the Bruno monument and other "clerical tombs" to poor rates of survival (74, 79-80, 105), an argument that is by nature difficult to sustain. While it is certainly true that our understanding of medieval art is limited by the small number of surviving monuments, it does not help the situation to fill gaps in the archive with assertions that are tantamount to wishful thinking.

If it could be proven that Bruno had indeed commissioned the audacious image of his own rising soul, and also conceptualized the startling picture of his shrouded corpse, the issues raised by these images would take on even greater weight. The problem is that Bruno's role in the formation of his tomb is difficult, if not impossible, to verify. Even without clear-cut information concerning patronage, however, the monument complicates our understanding of the relationship between the living and the dead in medieval society. Schuffels quietly avoids the questions of social, anthropological, or theological function that could be addressed here, focusing instead on traditional issues such as style, date, iconography, and textual sources. Even the appearance of the corpse, a haunting, uncanny, mummy-like form, poignantly surrounded by beggars who caress the wrapped body, clinging to its arms and cowering in tears at its feet, is read as a straightforward representation of a specific moment in the funerary ritual (63-64, 78, 103). While this makes sense to some degree, Schuffels seems untroubled by the fact that medieval art, broadly speaking, is not bound by a documentary impulse. By reducing the corpse and its attendants to a reflection of burial customs, Schuffels sidesteps the tensions that exist between the dead body and the living soul, or between the misery of the crippled beggars and the eschatological promise of the perfected bodies and heavenly inheritance that they are due to receive. Medieval Christians devoted extensive thought to such issues, but Schuffels is more interested in the beggars as evidence for stylistic links to other objects (62-63). Even Memoria, a long-established touchstone for funerary art, is only mentioned at the end of the book (106-107), and presented without much discussion.

Finally, it is disappointing that the section titled "The Meaning of the Bruno Monument" ("Die Deutung des Brunograbmals," 80-87) amounts to a highly specific refutation of ideas put forward by Donat de Chapeaurouge in the 1970s and 1980s. While Schuffels is justified in questioning the assertion that the iconography of the rising soul was reserved exclusively for saints, his counter-argument is too often based on an intuitive assessment of Bruno's desires in commissioning his tomb (84, 86). The result is a narrow set of quibbles, rather than a broader engagement with relevant issues raised by scholarship from an earlier generation. The real question, after all, is whether the category of the "saint" was clear-cut in this period, and whether figures like Bruno occupied a gray zone of saintliness, visualized in terms associated with the cult of saints in order to extend an aura of sanctity to the local community. In this vein, it would have been useful to invoke the reliquary-like effigy of Rudolph of Swabia and the iconic, haloed relief of Durandus of Moissac; these, too, are Romanesque images that blur the boundaries of saintliness. This, however, would have required broader engagement with commemorative sculpture, and would have produced a very different book. As it is, Schuffels is to be commended for inviting increased attention to a unique and often overlooked monument, even if his study leaves the door open for future work.