19.08.11 Doquang, The Lithic Garden

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Sarah Thompson

The Medieval Review 19.08.11

Doquang, Mailan S. The Lithic Garden: Nature and the Transformation of the Medieval Church. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2018. pp. xi, 272. ISBN: 978-0-19-063179-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Thompson
Rochester Institute of Technology

In The Lithic Garden, Mailan Doquang examines the potential meanings of the foliate friezes that extend along the walls of Romanesque and Gothic churches. While these friezes are often prominent components of late medieval church elevations, most researchers have treated them only as ornamental moldings, evaluating them formally when classifying and sequencing stylistic categories. Doquang, the first author to consider foliate friezes as a group, instead focuses on their enrichment of the meanings of sacred space. She determines her scope and methods in the introduction: her intent is to analyze expressive possibilities of the foliate frieze within the context of ecclesiastical architecture, rather than to revisit issues of style or focus on the process of production. Her interest is not in resolving thorny questions of patron/artist relations or in fixing iconographical values, but in considering broad possibilities for meaning among patrons and audiences, taking into account the contexts of appearance, spatial experience, and reception at given sites.

The book is not a comprehensive catalogue or a chronological survey; Doquang instead organizes material in four thematic chapters. The first evaluates the foliate frieze as part of the architectonic frame of sacred space; the second centers on relationships between foliage and concepts of paradise; the third analyzes representations of vines as metaphors for Christ; and the fourth looks at vines as an evocation of the golden vine of the Temple of Jerusalem. The first chapter is almost a second introduction, describing methodology and then taking on the origins, locations, and spread of the foliate frieze in France. First, Doquang reviews theories of the frame in art, describing frames as devices that may delineate, call to attention, and establish both boundaries and connections. She applies this to a key example: the interior frieze at Amiens. Although it would be useful to understand a bit more about the context of the frieze within the fabric of the wall, Doquang addresses the likely polychromy of the frieze, suggesting it was possibly green, gold, or both, underscoring the visual prominence and luxury of the frieze in relation to its setting. The sections that follow on interior and exterior friezes provide an overview of the uses and placements of these friezes, describing their proliferation in France as beginning in the twelfth century (perhaps not coincidentally in areas strongly associated with viticulture) and suggesting that, in some cases, they may have been a way to indicate the significance of particular spaces within churches. A short section on foliate borders in other media might have been better folded into the opening discussion of the significance of frames and their interactions with framed material. The section on Cluny III (particularly the narthex) as a possible point of origin for the new interest in foliate friezes is intriguing; the influence of Cluny's decorative elements can be overlooked, given that scholars are working largely from displaced fragments. Doquang reminds the reader of the potential for far-flung sources at Cluny, noting the diverse patronage and the presence of Byzantine artists and Crusaders. In light of the historiographical emphasis on Cluny's ties to Rome, as well as the Roman motifs found at Cluny and many of its dependents and the significance of acanthus in sculpted capitals and friezes, it would be useful to see an expanded treatment of potential classical antecedents, particularly acanthus friezes, acanthus scrolls. and classical guilloches of the type seen in Roman Cosmati pavements or, as a much earlier example, the mosaics of Santa Costanza. The pattern of interlocked spirals at Chalon-sur-Saône that Doquang likens to rinceaux surely derives from a guilloche.

The second chapter reviews connections between earthly paradise, heavenly paradise, and the architecture of the church, allowing the reader to understand how a medieval viewer may have seen visual representations of nature as references to divine presence. Bringing together paradise and gardens, Doquang establishes connections with imagery of the Tree of Life, particularly as a vine; the enclosed garden (hortus conclusus) identifying the Virgin Mary; and the garden of Joseph of Arimathea where the tomb of Christ was located. The textual evidence she provides of the Holy Sepulchre's continued association with a garden is helpful not only in demonstrating a potential meaning of natural foliage but in linking nature and sites in the Holy Land. The polysemy of these references--for example, that foliage could evoke both the site of the Fall of Man and salvation in a heavenly paradise--is reviewed at the chapter's conclusion.

Chapters three and four consider more specific textual evidence for a more specific form of foliate frieze subject: the vine. In chapter three, Doquang assesses the scriptural sources for Christ as the true vine before examining the presence of vine friezes in church portals, including the west and north portals of the cathedral of Chartres, the portal of Moutiers-Saint-Jean, and the portal of the Virgin chapel of Saint-Germain-des-Près, where they frame Christocentric scenes and complement Eucharistic imagery. Her most extensive case study is at Amiens. Here, Doquang elaborates on the use of identifiable grapevines in foliate friezes of the central portal of the west façade, where they frame Christocentric imagery, visually parallel grapevines in Old Testament quatrefoils flanking the central portal, and axially align with the altar of the cathedral. She provides strong evidence for intentionality, pointing out the lack of similar vine imagery on the lateral portals of the west facade, especially striking given their proximity and the dedication of the north portal to Saint Firmin, who was particularly associated with greenery and growth. The south transept portal, which emphasizes a former bishop of Amiens, Saint Honoré, in the context of the sacrifice of Christ and the celebration of Mass, again incorporates grapevine friezes. Doquang goes on to discuss the vines of Tree of Jesse imagery--yet another way that vine friezes could recall an aspect of Christ--and touches on classical sources for grapevines and scrolling vines.

The fourth chapter looks at a less familiar vine as a possible meaning for the vine frieze: the golden vine Josephus described framing the entry to the Temple of Jerusalem. Here, with the caveat that no contemporary textual sources mention foliate friezes in Gothic churches as references to the golden vine, Doquang connects Josephus's descriptions from Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish Wars with leading twelfth-century French clerics; additionally, she ably incorporates much additional support for this interpretation, including the Crusader-era slippage between the Dome of the Rock (itself adorned with golden vine friezes) and the Temple, contemporary to the era when foliate friezes became increasingly popular in the west; Byzantine and Islamic architectural use of golden vine friezes; the possibility of gilding vine friezes in French churches, as was the case with Byzantine and Islamic examples; the use of Temple measurements at sites such as Notre-Dame de Paris; and portals referencing the Temple with such features as Solomonic columns and jamb figures of Old Testament royalty. As with the discussion of the Holy Sepulchre and sources for Cluny III, the significance of foliate friezes expanding in popularity during the era following the First Crusade and in relation to the influence of both direct and filtered sources in the Near East is welcome and notable, especially as this kind of influence has been little studied for non-structural aspects of later medieval architecture. The book concludes with a poetic description of the uses of real foliage in liturgical ceremonies.

While Doquang sets limits to her research, The Lithic Garden is still an ambitious project with a broad scope, and it would not be possible for the author to take on all the questions that arise when evaluating the role of the foliate frieze; we need additional studies considering overlaps between religious and secular uses of the motif, for example, or secular parallels for possible meanings, especially as users of these buildings regularly encountered the kind of foliage depicted in religious spaces in everyday life. However, the author is to be commended on the strength of her case studies and on her ability to assemble and connect supporting evidence for each thematic interpretation she addresses. Any historian of medieval art knows the difficulty of defining a patron's intent in the absence of text sources, and understands the ambiguities inherent in reception, but Doquang establishes multiple and multivalent possibilities, each more convincing than mere ornamentation, for understanding the expense, effort, and emphasis given to foliate friezes within the space of the medieval church.

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