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18.01.05, Bagnoli, ed., A Feast for the Senses

18.01.05, Bagnoli, ed., A Feast for the Senses

Martina Bagnoli has given medieval scholarship a marvelous gift with this handsome book. A Feast for the Senses is much more than an exhibition catalogue for the exhibit of the same name that was on display at the Walters Art Museum from Oct. 16, 2016 through January 8, 2017. It is almost a manifesto from scholars who have found tremendous value in paying close attention to the sensory, experiential dimension of medieval art in its physical, as well as spiritual, contexts, and who wish to invite other art historians to join them in rediscovering and possibly re-evaluating our understanding of medieval art as situated, embodied experience. Some of the chapters are illuminating descriptions of artworks that appeal to the senses, but a few go beyond that to engage the art at a phenomenological level, exploring how and what art can tell us about embodied perception itself.

Of course, it is hard for a reader of the volume to share in the experiences that the exhibit itself might have offered, though limited by being housed in a museum. However, the book gives us 123 high-quality plates that individually and collectively provide fascinating evidence for the exhibition's central claim: that medieval art richly invites and engages its viewers through their five bodily senses, as a way of facilitating, as Bagnoli says in her second chapter, "the notion that to accept God's invitation and be reunited with him meant, first, to be able to feel him with one's own body" (33). The scholarship in this book is generally of very high quality. I will offer a few quibbles here and there, and a deeper critique of one contribution, but on the whole I think this volume successfully attains its purpose.

Bagnoli, the Executive Director of Gallerie Estensi in Modena, Italy, curated the exhibit, edited this volume, and wrote the introduction, "Sensual Awakenings," and the first and second chapters, "Making Sense" and "Longing to Experience," respectively. Her introduction intrigues the reader. Then, to good effect, Bagnoli's first chapter all but overwhelms us with a dizzying array of figures, schematics, and theories that all attest to the keen interest paid in the Middle Ages to our senses and cognitive processes, which resulted in a number of intellectual and artistic applications, and also made forays into a more phenomenological understanding of how we make sense of the world. Bagnoli has an impressive sense of the general historical trajectory and development of medieval conceptions of cognition. She also capably shows that while sight and hearing get most of the air time in medieval investigations of sense and cognition, touch, taste, and smell have their own moments on stage in the work of different thinkers and artists.

Bagnoli's second chapter undertakes a more focused argument concerning the role of art and the senses in religious worship. That argument, as she puts it, is that "in the context of religious ritual...sensory engagement supplied the participants in the liturgy, and, thus, the art, with a template for the spirit, moving them from tangible experiences to visionary imagination" (34). Bagnoli once again delivers a truckload of thinkers and artists that demonstrate how widespread this agenda was, and she works with written and artistic texts adeptly. Her opening passages that make John Calvin, and therefore Protestantism, a foil to medieval Catholicism, come close to being a straw-man argument for me. Another quibble here: her implicit claim that there was consistency between theory and practice across a fairly long stretch of time and place does not sound entirely plausible to me. Moreover, her citations of thinkers and theologians, along with artistic applications of their ideas, actually show how situated artworks are within their religious, ideological, and political contexts: I felt that I needed a more grounded sense of what the particular achievement was or effect the work had in its original physical, aesthetic, and ideological settings.

In contrast, Virginia Brilliant's third chapter very nicely locates the art she examines within a particular late medieval context. She eloquently articulates the rich symbols, allusions, and meanings of "The Virgin in the Rose Garden," the focus of her essay. I would have liked to hear a bit more about the story behind the history she relates, but I found the conclusion she draws from her careful development of the essay to be quite striking. I will not, however, play the spoiler here, and so, dear readers, you will have to find this out on your own.

Barbara Newman's fourth chapter, "Sacred, Secular, and Sensual: Three Cases in Late Medieval Crossover," is a masterful and fascinating look at the "crossover" of the sacred and secular in medieval art: "In the modality of crossover, writers and artists delighted in playing with the ambiguities that could result when the things of God were represented through the things of this world, and vice versa" (55). In each of her three case studies--The Gift of the Heart, The Feast of the Grail, and The Captive Unicorn--her readings are insightful and illuminating. While she notes the implicit development in audience attitudes for this art, I confess that I wanted Newman--perhaps because she is such a scholar par excellence for me--to say more about the viewer/reader experience with the literature and art she explores. Constraints of time and space surely played a role here.

Christina Normore, the author of chapter 5, "Sensual Wonder at the Medieval Table," does, however, dive in to sense experience with art. Her smart study definitely is, as she hoped, a genuine contribution to the "growing number of studies that reveal the subtlety, sophistication, and efficacy of feasting within premodern political and social life both at court and among urban communities" (75). Using useful and on-point examples she demonstrates how depictions of medieval feasts convey "total environments within which the objects now demurely isolated within museum cases once interacted both with each other and with their viewer-users" (78). She also discusses how vibrantly decorated serving vessels and dinnerware "give the invitation to interactivity" between art, environment, and experience, often facilitated by ambiguous and ludic images in the dinnerware in particular. I confess that I have often walked too quickly by all of those cabinets in museums that display such objects. I will do better by this art in the future.

Carla Casagrande's sixth chapter, "From Vigilance to Temperance: The Senses, the Passions, and Sin" (translated by Sara Switzer) traces the development of medieval conceptions of pleasure from Jerome's austere Ad Jovinianum to Thomas Aquinas's more expansive and, ultimately, more tolerant account of pleasure in embodied mortal experience. Appropriately, she spends most of her time on Augustine and Aquinas, but she also capably surveys other important contributors to the conversation. My quibbles here: I am not sure that the development she traces proceeds as neatly chronologically as she suggests. Nor am I sure that Thomas liberates pleasure as much as she seems to think he does. I wanted Casagrande to consider Thomistic conceptions of the appetites and their role in our embodied experience. At the same time, she delivers an especially learned and informative treatment of pleasure in medieval thought.

In her own learned and densely-textured essay, Emma Dillon explores the significance of sound in visual art and in our own lived experience in the seventh chapter, "Sensing Sound." I particularly enjoyed and learned a great deal from the way that she drew our attention not only to the way that artists represent sound, but also how they evoke sound to convey meaning. In her own words, her "essay offers an approach to locating sound--and particularly musical sound--in the experience of the medieval arts" (96). "Locating sound" is key here. Dillon's work positively thrilled me, and that kind of response from me, I must admit, is not frequent when I read musicological studies from fellow medievalists. And like Normore, Dillon successfully engages, indeed, embraces the very idea that lies at the heart of the exhibition: how art does its work as an embodied experience in its own right. Whether they know this or not, Normore and Dillon not only make a great contribution to our aesthetic and cultural understanding of art in the Middle Ages, but also to our understanding of how art does philosophy; that is, how it stages lived experience itself in such a way as to help us discover how we make sense of the world in the pre-reflective space we occupy briefly before we start assigning meanings to objects, people, and events.

Virginia Brilliant returns for the final chapter of the volume, "Art and Love in the Middle Ages." Here she discusses the uses of art in medieval social practices and conventions of love. She surveys a wide variety of art objects so used, from paintings to jewelry. However, I have serious questions about the way that Brilliant conceptualizes love in her survey and analysis. In her very first sentence she declares that "the idea of Love in the Middle Ages is synonymous with the idea of courtly love" (117). I strongly disagree, as I think many other scholars would, as well. "Courtly love" is a term that debuts only in the late nineteenth century, achieves its apex in C. S. Lewis's moralistic approach to this topic (see especially his 1936 book The Allegory of Love), but is now by no means an uncontroversial way of defining love literature or visual art. Indeed, Brilliant channels Lewis on a few occasions as she pauses to wonder why images and references to "adulterous" love stories show up in wedding or married-bedroom art, and what they might mean in that context.

Love in late medieval and Renaissance literature and art has deep roots in some of the most important philosophical and theological questions of that time period. Indeed, the most important philosophy that happens after Aquinas, in my estimation, happens not in the work of philosophers, but rather in the work of love poets and in some visual art on the subject. But here is not the place to litigate this case. Suffice it to say that no definitional term is adequate to comprehend the vast and various ways medieval art and letters take up the complexities and inherently conflicted nature of mortal love. In any event, I think that the lens Brilliant looks through to capture love in the Middle Ages blurs or occludes important interpretational possibilities, and I hope that she will reconsider at least some of her readings.

On the whole, however, this volume discusses, demonstrates, and models a kind of work that should be done with many other artworks and contexts for art throughout the Middle Ages.