16.09.12, Beate, Fallen Idols, Risen Saints

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Gerhard Lutz

The Medieval Review 16.09.12

Fricke, Beate. Fallen Idols, Risen Saints: Sainte Foy of Conques and the Revival of Monumental Sculpture in Medieval Art. Studies in the Visual Cultures of the Middle Ages, 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. iv, 282. ISBN: 978-2-503-54118-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Gerhard Lutz
Dommuseum Hildesheim

"Fallen Idols, Risen Saints: Sainte Foy of Conques and the Revival of Monumental Sculpture in Medieval Art" is a study of one of the most fascinating, puzzling and complex topics of medieval art. It seems no coincidence to be reminded of Hans Belting's landmark opus magnum. [1] While Belting concentrated on the Byzantine East, Fricke moves debates about the use and function of medieval cult images in the Latin West into the center by concentrating on sculpture up to the turn of the first millennium. This is a particularly difficult undertaking as almost no cult statue has been preserved with the exception of the Gero cross in Cologne cathedral, the Golden Madonna in Essen, and the image of St-Foy in Conques.

The multitude of ideas and thoughts presented in this study cannot be fully addressed within the scope of the present review, but some of its larger conceptual issues become clear if we consider the book's relationship to the object that is ostensibly its main topic. The author uses the famous image of St-Foy in Conques as a basis for her book, but not in the sense of a traditional monograph. Instead St-Foy serves as a starter for a discussion, to redefine the history of early monumental sculpture anew. Fricke commandingly outlines the cornerstones of her study which defined the centuries before 1000 in her view: "Unlike in Byzantium, monumental sculpture experienced a major revival in the West beginning in the ninth century. Briefly outlined, the re-emergence and dissemination of liturgical statues...took place in several phases: first the introduction of crucifixes, then 'speaking' reliquaries, Madonna statues, and finally full-figure statues of saints" (7). She sees the "installation of fully modeled larger-than-life crucifixes in churches and their incorporation into the rites" as main factor in the revival of sculpture during the early middle ages. Fricke's main point is to link contemporary iconophilia in Rome and at the Carolingian court directly with the emergence of monumental images: "They appeared immediately following the synods at Frankfurt in 794 and at Paris in 825, at which an explicit position was taken up by the political wing of the church" (7).

In this way the author disassociates early medieval sculpture from a theory which Harald Keller had suggested in his 1951 study, where he saw the origins in a close connection with reliquaries. [2] The effects of Keller's essay have been particularly persistent in German scholarship until Anna Pawlik's recent dissertation. [3] Further, ever since Reiner Haussherr's dissertation of 1963 (Der tote Christus am Kreuz: Zur Ikonographie des Gerokreuzes, Bonn) the development of early crucifixes has been a central point of discussion. More recently, however, major impulses with a focus on the flourishing dispute in the ninth century on the use and justification of images have come from historians of medieval theology and piety such as Celia Chazelle. [4]

A new look at the material from an art-historical perspective seems therefore overdue. At this point one question moves into the center of discussion: What evidence do we have about monumental images before 1000? In view of the lack of preserved original objects every attempt will inevitably rely heavily on written sources. A closer look at the texts used in the present book shows, however, that the actual informative value of most passages, which are summarized in two paragraphs (105), is limited. There are only two documented instances of sculptures that appear close in the chronology of Carolingian history to the synods of Frankfurt in 794 and Paris in 825. The first, a donation of bishop Angelelmus of Auxerre (ca. 813-823/28) can be dated to the years around 820. In the later vitae of the bishops of Auxerre, the object is described as a large cross of gold and silver (crucem permaximam) decorated with the face of the Savior (vultu Salvatoris decentissime decoravit). [5] This word choice does not allow the reconstruction of a three-dimensional corpus because vultus could refer to the depiction of a face only and we do not have sufficient evidence to contextualize the use of vultus in comparison to images in the Carolingian period. Given the lack of comparable images north of the Alps in this early period, it is difficult to avoid thinking of the cross in the sixth-century apse mosaic of Saint Apollinare in Classe, which bears the face of Christ in its center but not the body. This shows a general problem of wording in the middle ages and especially in a time without preserved objects to make the use of words graspable.

The second example is a donation of Aldric for the cathedral of Le Mans in 835 which is described as a crucifix elevated above an altar, again made of gold and silver. The text does not give us an indication of its actual size ("...crucifixum Domini nostri Jesu Christi auro et argento mirabiliter fabricatum..."). [6] A second source describes the object as a statua with Christ fixed on the cross ("Inter magnifica ejus opera Jesu Christi cruci affixi statua eminebat argentea, auro eleganter oblita..."). [7] This could testify to a three-dimensional image but of unknown dimensions. Another golden cross ("crucem auream magnam") is mentioned as a donation of Solomon for Saint-Sauveur in Redon in 869, [8] but again it remains unclear whether "crucem" refers to a large-scale crucifix or simply a cross.

The first example which can be linked with some plausibility to a monumental image is a lost crucifix from St.-Martin near Autun in Burgundy. Despite damages caused by the Huguenots in the 16th century and its subsequent additions, a later painting of 1664 shows remarkable parallels to ninth century depictions of the crucified Christ. A text mentions the object as going back to St-Odo in a passage set between Charles the Bald and William of Aquitaine, i.e. hinting to a chronological range within the last third of the ninth century. Whether or not a stone head (today in the Musée Rolin in Autun, no. ML 1626) which was attributed by Christian Beutler to the Odo crucifix can be taken as a secure attribution has to remain an open question here, which means that, yet again, the interpretation of this example as proof of early medieval crucifix sculpture remains open to debate

Further examples in the text which also do not allow a more detailed interpretation of their form include a donation of relics by Hermengarius, bishop of Nantes, which were placed in signo Domini argenteo, or a large cross (!) of silver erected close to the tomb of Charles the Bald in St-Denis. [9] A donation of a cross for the cathedral of Narbonne is attributed to archbishop Theodard (885-893) in his 10th century vita. Again we learn about a cross, but in this case it was made after the example of human "staturae". [10]

In sum from these texts only the two examples from Auxerre and Narbonne could refer to a three-dimensional corpus, which both go back to the last quarter of the ninth century. Although there is too little evidence to suggest the emergence of larger three-dimensional depictions of the crucified in the late Carolingian period, there is also no indication of a connection of theological discussions around 800 and connected developments in sculptural arts.

Here a significant circular argument completes the interpretation: Older scholarship mentions a crucifix in Metz from the seventh century as oldest known example for the early middle ages. [11] Its dates have varied considerably in scholarship since then. [12] The vita of bishop Goericus/Abbo (629-644) written possibly in the eleventh century mentions two argentei disci with a large golden crucifix. The dating of the source (which has yet to appear in a published critical edition) is unclear, and so too are the form and placement of the two disci and the crucifix. Discus is translated by Fricke as table and dish, apparently based on a misinterpretation by Harald Keller. It is also possible that discus used in relation to a precious cross might rather refer to a flabellum-like object. Thus such an elevated ensemble probably did not include a monumental cross in our modern understanding but a large cross of goldsmith's work in comparison to contemporary objects of this type. This shows again the limitations in interpreting such texts. And it remains completely unclear when the cross was actually made. [13] Proceeding from the earlier assumption that "monumental crosses with the body of Christ sculpted and covered in gold or silver leaf appear after the second quarter of the ninth century" (105), Fricke takes this as a given terminus post and dates the Metz cross between the ninth and early eleventh century. At this point the central hypothesis supports itself without having been worked out sufficiently. A renewed analysis of medieval sources can bring us further insight into form, size and material of crucifixes before 1000 as long as careful looking at texts and objects harmonizes with the forming of theories.

German art historical publications only rarely make it through the bottleneck of an English translation. Even groundbreaking publications such as those of Horst Bredekamp, Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, or Martin Büchsel have never had the privilege of an English edition. [14] Beate Fricke's study Fallen Idols, Risen Saints is with Hans Belting's Likeness and Presence one of the few exceptions, and particularly surprising because it is maybe the first dissertation in the field of medieval art history to be published in both languages. Insofar this translation is an indication of the high expectations for the book, the enormous interest in the topic of St.-Foy of Conques, and the important stakes of a conversation about the earliest figural reliquaries to survive from the middle ages.

One of the main differences between the German and the English editions of this book concerns translation: The English version did not retain the partly essayistic style of writing. This is on the one hand regrettable, because the text loses its fluid and oftentimes entertaining character, but on the other hand useful because it corresponds to a stronger concentration on the sequence of arguments and content. The book as a scholarly study benefits, on the whole, from this shift.

The English publication of the book distinguishes itself from its German edition by an appealing layout with black-and-white images integrated into the text. Unfortunately, the bibliography was abandoned. This is particularly regrettable as the whole text seems to have been transferred from the 2007 version mostly unchanged, and the research itself had been carried out between 2000 and 2004. The translation could have been a welcome opportunity for revision and updates. Thus important recent contributions such as by Rachel Fulton-Brown and by Thomas F. X. Noble are not mentioned or not integrated into the discussion which make some statements getting out of step with the actual situation of English scholarship ("too little attention has been paid to the initial acceptance of the three-dimensional body of Christ" [98]). [15] Noble's book is mentioned incidentally in two footnotes where a more detailed discussion of his ideas would have advanced the study.

In sum this is nevertheless a thrilling book with inspiring assumptions. Although it suffers from a too speedy handling of objects and sources, which would have required a revision, and a sometimes confusingly interlaced structure of arguments, Fricke's work hopefully contributes to an intensifying debate on what and how we can learn from (early) medieval texts about works of art, as well as their limitations, and how closely theological debates and artistic developments can be related.



1. Hans Belting, Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 1993); Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

2. Harald Keller, "Zur Entstehung der sakralen Vollskulptur in der ottonischen Zeit," in Festschrift für Hans Jantzen (Berlin: Mann, 1951), 71-91.

3. Anna Pawlik, Das Bildwerk als Reliquiar? Funktionen früher Großplastik im 9. bis 11. Jahrhundert (Petersberg: Imhof, 2013).

4. Celia Chazelle, The Crucified God in the Carolingian Era: Theology and Art of Christ's Passion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 14-74.

5. "Ex gestis episcoporum Autisiodorensium," in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores, vol. 13 (Hannover, 1881), 396.

6. Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 115, col. 36.

7. Acta Sanctorum, Ianuarii, vol. 1 (Antwerp 1863), 388.

8. Barthélémy, Anatole: Cartulaire de l'abbaye de Redon en Bretagne (Paris: Bureaux de la Revue archéologique, 1863), 190, no. CCXLI.

9. Suger von St.-Denis, Ausgewählte Schriften: Ordinatio, De Consecratione, De Administratione, eds. Andreas Speer and Günther Binding (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000), 256: "Crucem etiam mirabilem quantitatis sue, que superposita est inter altare et tumulum eiusdem Karoli...."

10. Acta Sanctorum, Maii, vol. 1 (Antwerp, 1680), 151: "Crucem autem, ad instar humanae staturae protractam, auro argentoque adopertam, in qua particular Crucis Domini condita erat...."

11. Keller, "Zur Entstehung der sakralen Vollskulptur in der ottonischen Zeit," 72.

12. Pawlik dates crucifix in Metz to the 11th century. See Das Bildwerk als Reliquiar?, 279-280, no. 30.

13. "De S. Goerico seu Abbone Episcopo Conf. Metis, Vita altera," in Acta Sanctorum, Septembris, vol. 6 (Paris / Rome, 1867), 48-55.

14. Horst Bredekamp, Kunst als Medium sozialer Konflikte: Bilderkämpfe von der Spätantike bis zur Hussitenrevolution (Edition Suhrkamp, 763; Frankfurt a. M., 1975); Dieter Kimpel and Robert Suckale, Gotische Architektur in Frankreich: 1130-1270 (Munich, 1985); Martin Büchsel, Die Entstehung des Christusporträts: Bildarchäologie statt Bildhypnose (Mainz, 2004).

15. Rachel Fulton-Brown, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

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