Almost every art-history book falls now, in my opinion, into Dylan Thomas's category of "'Useful Presents': And pictureless books in which small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles's pond and did and drowned; and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why".  "Useful" refers to all the things books tell children--always wiser and more perceptive than we adults credit--that we dutifully think they should know. But obvious warnings are so transparent, and superficial description is evasive. Why do we sidestep the "why" of our subject so consistently? A new burst of energy in (what some call) New Materialism is by no means absent from medieval studies. If any colleagues want to get closer to the "why," however, of late medieval painting in England (and by implication, any medieval painting), than this new book by Spike Bucklow will begin to answer the question so much more adequately and pleasurably than our versions of Thomas's Christmas books. A conservation scientist, Bucklow has a remarkably light touch, and he is also broadly read in ways that allow his argument to percolate in literary allusions, drawn from a wide variety of medieval and early modern writers. In this way, he is a highly original writer on the subject of medieval art: not only a scientist, he is also a humanist. And that striking union produces beautifully written, highly stimulating work that specialists and non-specialists alike can draw profitably from--as only 'useless presents' can provide.
The book is organized around five case studies of late medieval painting from England, and it uses them to demonstrate ways in which medieval people understood their matter and how that understanding enriched the meaning and experience of their art. Bucklow was himself involved in the conservation and preservation of all but one of these works, and his attention to details of making, growing and combining matter relies on autopsy--granted, the kind that only modern science can provide. And this reclamation of making and meaning is part of the excitement of the book. The analyses and descriptions give insights into processes otherwise not visible to the naked eye or into processes made invisible by the kinds of questions art historians often pose of such objects. In his ability to take readers into the very elementary choices available to painters in their materials, and into the cultural conditions that made choices in certain elements compelling to them, Bucklow reveals and shares a privileged position for new understandings of the materialisms of medieval art. Michael Baxandall's model of using the objects themselves as lenses to comment on their own circumstances is realized in this book, but with a scientific rigor and lightness of touch not found even in the extraordinary Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven, 1980).
The range of engagement with and exploration of matter is the subject of the first chapter, the only one not organized around a case study. Bucklow describes here the production of lead white, in his own replication of a medieval recipe. The book begins with a divergence from our own uninformed technological indulgences by sketching a world in which many professionals and patrons had to be knowledgeable about materials and their workings. Produced by exposing lead to urine and vinegar, and by burying it in horse manure for a month, white crystals were used in a large variety of ways, not least white pigment. This process allows the author to move from the particular to the general by describing the paradoxical qualities of the process: from base matter comes pure, from dark comes light, from poison to life, and from learning and mastering matter's courses come divine instruction and human enlightenment. Paradox, or riddling as Bucklow prefers, is the catalyst for making matter's meanings. In every state or operation resides its opposite, and so the white is a revelation of true nature from the outwardly and previously base. Human understanding of these operations proceeds through contemplation, learning, doing. Bucklow does fall into a human-centered fallacy at times (which would seem to be one of the liberating effects of his work that he is still prone to, just the same), and the materials remind or evoke, that is, lose their own agency at the hands of human makers and lookers. When matter has a fully determining role in the production of meaning, a new world of art-making opens up.
The book is at its best when it shows the unity of effort between makers and matter, when the makers follow the direction of material and use it to comment on or demonstrate divine foremaking in the world. Bucklow puts it a little differently, certainly more eloquently, "The painter's mystery involved seeing one of Nature's faces and persuading her to show the other" (29). In the second chapter, he analyses the blue pigments used in the Metz Pontifical (early fourteenth century). Under examination during conservation, the manuscript reveals blue from two different sources, one azurite (locally available, relatively inexpensive) and ultramarine or lapis lazuli (acquired from afar and so, very expensive). Bucklow's examination revealed that the expensive blue was always placed on top of the less expensive pigment, or it was placed on key figures while the other was used for backgrounds, but the visible qualities are not noticeably different in either case. The choices then came down largely to the painters themselves, who were making a case for appropriate spheres of activity for matter in the production of meaning in these illustrations. Bucklow describes the means by which the pigments were produced and the meditative, ritualistic quality of that production, and the relative values of the two, the one referring to the divine or celestial (and this natural for clergy's robes, for example) and the other to the earthly (and so right for the setting of the actions, this lower world humans act in). In this case, the painters alone were 'in on the joke' (Bucklow uses such metaphors, though he likes riddle best), and the work itself largely disappears their interactions with matter to our eyes. And yet Bucklow's analysis revealed choices made, and the choices are such that they must have depended on careful, deliberate planning and action. In other words, artists performed theology, a commentary on scripture (as theology is) using matter as its medium; the theology, just the same, remained both enacted and invisible, until a scientist was able to restitute that knowing-hand making.
Other chapters also lead readers back into medieval making in startlingly vivid ways: the Macclesfield Psalter reveals the network of materials and mysteries among craftspeople in East Anglia, and it also shows challenges apparently self-set by those people to speak to local community and the place of the divine in it. The two last chapters are variations on this heaven-on-(in?)-earth theme, the first of them on the Westminster Retable and the second on the Thornham Parva Retable. Extremely close examination of materials, their making and results, as well as their costs, ratios, angles of display, and presentations, demonstrates an intensity of hand-intelligence to these objects scarcely admitted (or admissible, without scientific competencies) by art historians. The book does contain digressions and connections that demand certain leaps by readers and that not all will follow; Bucklow is not a ground-hugging stylist, no matter how closely he examines the ground--and all that rests on it and that it conceals--for argument. The prose is lively, however, and sympathetic and self-aware, and seldom lapses into jargon of any particular field, in my reading at least. Bucklow is less convincing when iconography--or more conventional tricks of the art historian's trade--take the upper hand, and while lovely, the chapter on the Wilton Diptych is not nearly as compelling in the same fashion as the rest of the book. He is strongest here when the craftsperson or artist works as a kind of theologian whose methods of engagement and address are matter-formed. As he states, these matter-bound medieval riddles were fun to devise and to think on. Baseball no longer has a monopoly on ludic significance (games with deep meaning) or on colorful handles. Bucklow allows art history to play as a necessary component in the serious, (also naturally) essential riddle of discovering art's why.
1. Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales (recorded for radio in 1952).