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13.12.02, Baert, Caput Johannis in Disco

13.12.02, Baert, Caput Johannis in Disco

This is not the first study by this author on the same subject but it is her most comprehensive with thirteen chapters as well as a prologue and bibliography. It is a study that covers a huge period of time from the thirteenth century to the post-medieval period and although understandably focused on the western world it also delves, when needed, into the Byzantine realms.

The Prologue sets the framework for the study with the author stating that this book is a study on the head as an "object"--the Johannesschüssel--which she calls an artifact--a term that reduces the work to its core of being mobile as well as having connotations of its user-function. It's a work that is found only in the Western world, is three-dimensional and was widely popular from around 1150 to 1550.

The first chapter ostensibly deals with the textual narratives of John the Baptist's death and sets out to look at the interplay between text, relic and object through the textual sources. It is here that the author is at her most conventional in interpretation. It examines from a highly theoretical perspective the concepts of John as a benchmark figure between the Old and New Testaments, the "analyptic" technique of the texts, the death on Herod's birthday, the meaning of the dance, the concept of the "empty" girl and John as the symbol of an anti-alliance. The author synthesis various theories but rather sadly looks only at one single work of art.

The second chapter (The Relics) moves the reader into the actual works. It traces the legends surrounding the finding of the head-- which happened on three occasions--and then looks at the head as "procreating itself into a complex group of cultic avitars." She looks at the platter from the biblical perspective and as a neutral recipient in the legend of Wallon. The chapter moves from the East to the West and looks at the relic as the cranium nudum and a speaking head relic before concluding with a section on the gaze, the seen and the unseen.

The third chapter (Genesis of an Artifact) goes back to the concept of the Johannesschüssel as an artifact. It looks at how these free-standing works could stand in for the actual relics they represented and how they operated in place of the relics themselves. I must admit I had difficulties in seeing how these were different from any other such relics in terms of functionality. These free-standing carvings first appear around 1310-20 (the earliest example may well be that from Naumburg) but no mention is made of the subject of John the Baptist's head which is found much earlier. The author points out how the format from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries depended on use and location and how some carvings actually included a relic.

The fourth chapter (The Liturgical Calendar; performative acts and therapy) looks at the function of the Johannesschüssel analyzing literary, iconographic and ethnographic sources. As a result, she focuses on three contexts underpinning the works--the liturgical calendar, the sacramental context and the intermediary space between sacred and profane. The first of these is expanded in this chapter and she looks at the head of John the Baptist as a symbol of light (the lantern), fire, dancing and the curative powers of the saint. It is largely an ethnographic study on the events surrounding John's birthday which is celebrated on June 24th.

The fifth chapter (The Sacramental Context; Water and Blood) looks at the second premise underpinning these works. It traces the relationship of water and death and looks at the Johannesschüsseln as baptismal dishes and altar utensils. The sacramental relationship between John and the Eucharist is discussed before the author examines the unique corpus of fifteenth century alabaster carvings from Nottingham. This is for her the most important group within the sacramental Johannesschüsseln. She looks at the wound on Christ's forehead in relation to that of Christ's side before examining the motif as found on amulets, seals and pilgrim badges.

The sixth chapter (The Andachtsbild: The Gaze and The Senses) analyses the facial expressions of these works and the various sections look at the eyes, mouth, scar, and blood from which she moves into issues of reception and interaction. The author finds the images to be "aesthetically ambivalent" but notes the physical similarities with images of Christ who was, after all, John's "second cousin." She analyses the relationship between word and image, the gaze and the appeal to the senses and the phenomenological tension between head and visage.

The seventh chapter looks at the head isolated from the body and does so from three perspectives, the first of which is The Medusa Effect (the title of this chapter). The two other angles which are not dealt with here are the skull cult and the relationship between blood, sacrifice and dance. I must admit I fail to see the parallels that the author discusses. In the medieval period Medusa's head is more often than not held by Perseus and her mouth is by no means constantly open or closed. She is usually found in relation to the constellations and is devoid of devotional qualities--coming as she does from a secular context--that the author ascribes to the Johannesschüssel. For me, both subjects do not have "the morphology of the creation of prototypical images." In a wide reaching text, the author looks at material as diverse as Babylonian terra cottas and Egyptian carvings before concluding that both subjects are united by "deep uterine and cosmic schemes."

The next chapter (The Skull Cult) looks at the beheading from different perspectives and is underpinned by a broad reading of anthropological material. Here, she looks at the head from the perspective of the skull and links it to a cult focusing on what it conveyed, which did not center on one specific meaning but looks at the "round orgies, rampant orifices and wild hair" that it conveyed.

The ninth chapter (Sacrifice and Dance) returns to Salome and dance. Even though the author states that it is a subject that is outside of this study she looks at the meaning and anthropology of dance from the Classical to the modern and unites it against John himself. She sees the fact that many images of Salome's dance are found in baptisteries to be linked to John's baptismal associations. I remain unconvinced that one of the images she uses (fig. 94) actually shows the dance and it seems to me that it shows the actual beheading with Salome as observer--adding yet another dimension to the narrative.

The tenth and eleventh chapters look at similarities and differences between John the Baptist and Christ in the bigger picture but take the vera icon and Johannesschüssel as the base lines. The first of these examines the "epistemological dynamic between John and Christ" and claims rather unjustly that one cannot be understood without the other. The author states that her aim is to look at the "symbolism of foundation from the perspective of their own common genealogy." Her belief is that the fusion of the two is based on a shared Judeo- Christian symbolism. The eleventh chapter is more focused on the actual works of art and is an iconographical examination of the artifacts relating to these two forms. She sees John as the "relictual idol" and the vera icon as the "relictual icon"--head versus face. Her analysis however in tracking the parallels moves beyond the head in the vera icon and into the body and seems at times to unreasonably extend the parallels. Interestingly, both the vera icon and the Johannesschüssel are found in a seventeenth century drawing by Guercino now in Princeton University Art Museum (no inventory number given).

The last chapter focuses on a sixteenth century painting by Andrea Solario now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna which the author sees as introducing a new iconography that was to be widely emulated and to give new life to the motif. I fail to agree with the author's perception of Salome as lacking responsibility and passive in this work--but that is one of the beauties of iconology. In much the same way as John carries with him all his deeds and life so too does Salome in this picture. The final section in the book, the Epilogue, is where the author briefly brings the reader into the post-medieval period and looks at the influence of the Brotherhoods of the Misericordia in particular. The author justifies her iconological approach in the conclusion saying that this subject is one that was divorced from its textual correlate over time and assumed a life of its own and in doing so had forged many new links of its own.

It is a book in which the author deftly weaves her way through the entire medieval period over a huge expanse of territory. This is not an easy book to read and my feeling is that the author has not been well served by the translation. I must admit I had difficulties reading it at times and am not sure if this was the author or translator's faults or my own inabilities to make sense of it. Words are frequently used without meaning and sometimes literally as when it is stated that this happened "on the British isles" or that seals and pilgrim amulets are "artistically spontaneous"? It is also a book that was not well served by the copyeditor or publisher. Conclusions and summaries are found in a number of the chapters but not all and the practice seems to have been abandoned mid-way through the volume, captions are inadequate in many instances and one is left wondering where the work of art in the image is to be found. Some of the images look as though they were shot with hand held cameras in museum display cases or else were printed from poor photocopies. They are called figures or sometimes referred to as Illustrations. For so expensive a volume I would have expected a uniformly good quality--even with the paper which is nearly transparent and lacks weight. There is no excuse for a press charging such an inflated price for a poorly produced publication.