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18.04.10, Davies, A Reservoir of Ideas

18.04.10, Davies, A Reservoir of Ideas


Over the course of his distinguished career at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Paul Williamson has made enduring contributions to the study of medieval art, as well as that of the arts of other periods. A Reservoir of Ideas provides ample evidence of his many achievements, including a comprehensive bibliography of his publications and two prefatory essays that provide overviews of his activities as a scholar and curator. In these framing remarks by Peta Motture and Marjorie Trusted, evidence of the human side of Williamson likewise abounds, for he is described as enthusiastic, devoted, and appreciative, among many other admirable qualities. Indeed, it is the very human and humane encounters with Williamson that so animate the pages of this handsomely produced Festschrift. Many of the twenty-one scholarly essays include a recollection of a personal interaction that prompted them to think more deeply about an object or issues relating to interpretation. Indeed, the essays within this volume pay tribute to Williamson's own scholarly and curatorial methods in their use of careful and informed looking to deepen and refine understandings of artworks and their creators, to pose even more probing questions for future study in conversation with specialists. This dialogic method recalls, say, Edgar Wind's appeals to foreground the human in the study of art or Michael Baxandall's assertion that the study of art is fundamentally social. Accordingly, the "reservoir" of the volume's title might not only point to the richness of artworks, but likewise to the community of scholars and curators who put the study of medieval art at the center of their lives.

Essays within this volume are arranged in roughly chronological order and the impressive range of subjects, arranged in roughly chronological order, offers fitting testimony to Williamson's own dauntingly broad interests. Citing examples primarily from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dagmar Taübe asserts that there are approximately twenty-five scenes from the life of Paul that were commonly illustrated in medieval art; absent from this list are several apocryphal episodes, including the Flight of Simon Magus, which typically include the saint. Anthony Cutler considers the utility of the notion of a "group" of objects through sustained formal analysis of the Grado Ivories, concluding that the substantial differences among individual works are ultimately not enough to call into question this "convenient concept." Danielle Gaborit-Chopin suggests a Carolingian origin for the idiosyncratic Ivory of the Prediction of the Denial at the Bargello Museum, noting for the first time that this object was a writing tablet. Lawrence Nees makes an appeal to the insights that careful analysis of ornament can offer through his close reading of 'Foundation Reliquary' of Hildesheim. Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen engages the concept of spolia in her scrutiny of the reliquaries from Archbishop Egbert's Trier. Neil Stratford reviews the written and archaeological evidence for the Cluny cloister constructed in the 1120s and identifies a tendency to shun the human figure that anticipates, say, Bernard of Clairvaux's iconoclastic leanings. Within the image of Saint Anne Nursing the Virgin and accompanying text on the Arezzo Scapular, Julian Gardner identifies evidence for the importance of sacred music and of crusading ideology during the papacy of Gregory X. Valentino Pace uses iconographical and contextual evidence to argue that the identity of the celebrated 'Bust of Sigilgaita' at Ravello must remain in play, and then suggests that Nicola Rufolo is most likely its patron. John Cherry argues that the rather impractical use of ivory and bone seal matrices, which degrade relatively quickly and offer less sharp impressions than metal counterparts, may be partly attributed to the amuletic qualities of these materials. In a close analysis of two wooden and one ivory sculptures of the Virgin and Child, Sarah Guérin considers "similarities across scale and synergy across media." Charles T. Little gleans insights into private devotional practices from an ivory statuette of Francis of Assisi in a private collection. Élisabeth Antoine-König surveys some recent museum acquisitions of panels from composite caskets to pose iconographic questions regarding the figure of Gawain. Élisabeth Taburet-Delahaye examines archival sources related to Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria--helpfully transcribed in an appendix--to shed light onto the underappreciated activities of embroiderers in fourteenth-century Paris. Eleanor Townsend argues that an alabaster panel in the Victoria and Albert, one of three featuring episodes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, represents the Scattering of Ashes. Catherine Yvard catalogues examples of small kneeling figures imploring Christ or saints in Gothic Ivories to pose nuanced questions regarding ownership and devotion. Peter Barnet analyzes a recently acquired polychromed sculpture of the Christ Child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exploring its potential devotional uses. Richard Marks considers the original context, date, and patronage of the Blythburgh choirstall carvings. Colum Hourihane examines variations in fifteenth- and sixteenth- representations of the Ecce Homo; to consider questions regarding iconographic classification. Kim Woods attempts to locate the patron and original context of the Tree of Jesse Gates from Scarisbrick Hall, now in a private collection. Glyn Davies provides an instructive overview of Francis Douce's activities as scholar and collector of Gothic Ivories. Julien Chapuis offers reflections on issues related to restoring and exhibiting sculptures that were damaged in the 1945 Berlin fires.

The breadth of subjects covered, the sumptuous color photographs, and typically crisp prose of the contributions make this volume a delight to read. While offering fresh insights into celebrated artworks, one of the strengths of this volume is that it brings to scholarly attention lesser known works, many in private collections. It is perhaps unavoidable given the physical constraints of the project that the reader comes away wanting to know even more on a range of subjects. But, perhaps fitting in view of the volume's dedicatee, it so pleasingly inspires further research and further conversations.