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21.09.12 Feltman/Thompson (eds.), The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture

The Medieval Review

21.09.12 Feltman/Thompson (eds.), The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture


The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture is an anthology inspired by Fernand Braudel's concept of the longue durée, articulated in his foundational article of 1958. Braudel's expansive approach to history is here adapted to inform the planning, making, unmaking, and remaking of works of art. As one author in the volume queries, "just how long are the lives of medieval buildings or artworks? And when should scholars start and stop paying attention to them" (17)? A broad chronological perspective has been particularly important in the study of works dealing with architecture such as Marvin Trachtenberg's Building-in-Time of 2010, which is cited by several authors, and it is also part of the DNA of Pierre Nora's Lieux de Mémoire of 1989. [1] In her introduction to the volume, Jennifer Feltman explains that focus on a diachronic approach is particularly timely now, with so many interpretive models and methodologies on offer, affording a fruitful opportunity for scholars to take stock and retool (3).

Feltman's introduction is enriched by Nicola Camerlenghi's chapter, "How Long Are the Lives of Medieval Buildings?" (Ch. 1), which deepens the volume through its consideration of such interestingly diverse examples as the Great Mosque of Damascus, St. Peter's in Rome, Dura Europos, and the Ise Shrine in Japan. Using the analogy of Hume's oak, which grows from a small seed to a large tree that no longer physically resembles that seed but remains the same oak, Camerlenghi explains the notion of "essence" that underlies the volume: "once we allow that buildings and artifacts are not just perceived to have 'multiple historicities,' but that this is an ontological quality of any object that perdures in time, then we can begin to understand them as complex processes" (28).

The anthology consists of seventeen chapters that are organized into five sections: "Essence & Community"; "Transformation"; "Narration; Memory & Oblivion"; and "Restoration". These sections structure the contributions coherently, although because the chapters other than Camerlenghi's focus on monographic case studies--which are replete with local detail and often startling peculiarities--many of them could easily be grouped elsewhere within the volume. Imogen Tedbury's contribution on the Lorenzetti frescoes originally in the church of San Francesco in Siena (ch. 11), for example, is now grouped in the "Memory and Oblivion" section, but because of her larger point about the slippage between medieval and neo-medieval works restored in the 19th century, the chapter might also join the section on "Restoration." A separate section dealing with the archaeology and reuse of books, discussed in chapters by Emily N. Savage on an unfinished French Book of Hours (ch. 7) and Lynley Anne Herbert on the Carrow Psalter (ch. 10), could also be imagined. At the same time, one appreciates the chapters' integration with other kinds of materials. Herbert, for example, offering a master class in codicological manipulation, is included in the section on "Narration," because of her demonstration that in an effort to ride out changing belief systems, new narratives were created within the Carrow Psalter. These include the erasure and concealment of references to Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom is (now) one of the most famous images in the book.

The case studies in the volume are drawn from works that originated in the present-day countries of France, Italy, Spain, England, and Germany, although many of them focus on the changing fortunes of the patronage or power structures of their medieval locales and examples. This is realized compellingly in works by Matilde Mateo on the Victory Cross of Orviedo (ch. 12), and William Diebold on the Magdeburg Rider (ch. 13). In the latter, Diebold surveys the decades between 1940-2009, which cover a period of enormous upheaval, one that saw a significant reappraisal of what it meant to be "German." Among the rich concepts that emerge from the volume, in addition to Mateo's and Diebold's highlighting of nationalist interventions, is the question of what constitutes authenticity, [2] the adaptive nature of cultic practices, the many questions surrounding ownership, and strategies for imagining ephemeral performances.

Elisa A. Foster's "Lost in Translation: The Virgin of Le Puy" (ch. 2) is a case study that fully justifies and rewards the approach of the longue durée. [3] The famous medieval wooden cult statue of Le Puy of c. 1096 was destroyed in a Revolutionary bonfire of 1794, only to be replaced in the mid-19th century by the statue currently in the cathedral which "seems to have inherited all the miracle-working properties of her predecessor" (31). In investigating medieval conceptions of the copy, as something that can retain an attachment to the original, though like Hume's oak is rarely an exact replica, Foster engages fruitfully with the long life of this work of art. A related vierge noire she identifies in the neighboring church of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is both a copy and a cult object in its own right and further adds to our grasp of this venerated but elusive work, [4] while also revealing larger processes of signification and adaptation over time.

The importance of the diachronic approach is further developed in Laura Jacobus's chapter, "Flying Pigs, Fiery Whirlwinds, and a 300-Year-Old Virgin" (ch. 3). Jacobus builds on her prior work on Enrico Scrovegni's Arena Chapel to investigate the performance of the Annunciation reenacted annually in the courtyard before the chapel in which the actors playing the part of the angel and Virgin Annunciate were dressed in clothing lent by Scrovegni's wife Marchesa Jacopina d'Este. The author tracks eyewitness accounts of the festival of the Annunciation, Jacopina's will, inventories, and contemporaneous images (including Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna) to explore how the marchesa's clothing, which Jacobus plausibly argues was woven with family heraldry (53-54), allowed her to participate by proxy in the festival. Jacopina's posthumous bequest to the feast gave further impetus to the tradition as her garments were creatively recycled, restored, and periodically given fashion updates over the centuries. Through this example, the longue durée of the ephermal medieval performance is beautifully woven into the anthology.

How we might imagine the ways medieval works performed in their setting is also at stake in Maeve O'Donnell-Morales, "Resurrecting the Medieval Altar: Iberian Virgins in the Gothic Castilian Imagination and in Contemporary Museum Contexts" (ch. 8). She focuses on the 13th-century cult statue of the Virgin from Seville, whose wooden core contains several hinged joints. (136-137) The statue was covered by kidskin, presumably to conceal the joints and contribute to a life-like appearance, then dressed in clothing. O'Donnell-Morales's consideration of the materials and physical possibilities of this example is extended through her discussion of the representations of cult statues of Mary in the contemporaneous Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso X. In addition, O'Donnell-Morales suggests what the Virgin of Seville's range of motion may have looked like through analogy to stop-motion animation, which she persuasively argues captures the "subtle yet potent changes" through the small, halting changes of serial revelation well conveyed in animation (142-143).

A number of case studies involve the architectural setting, which is pursued in the chapters by Amanda W. Dotseth on San Quirce de Burgos (ch. 4), Charles R. Morscheck on the early Christian basilica of Santa Tecla that was cleared away to make room for Milan Cathedral (ch. 5), and Nancy Wu on a Romanesque Portal and its doors in the Cloisters (ch. 9). The architectural setting emerges with particular clarity in Kyle G. Sweeney's "The Long Life of Notre-Dame de Louviers" (ch. 6), which ironically features a two-dimensional misrepresentation of the Norman parish church in Louviers. Sweeney turns to a 16th-century image of the church in stained glass (Fig. 6.3), which like other compelling images of buildings of the period includes a selection of notable features, both recognizable and reimagined. In relaying his case, Sweeney broadens his discussion to include the growing importance of "architectural portraiture" in the early modern era through advances in draftsmanship, travel journals, detailed architectural descriptions, competitions, and the advent of printing. Yet these developments did not necessarily result in increased accuracy. Rather, as Sweeney demonstrates, in "employing strategies of representation that extend beyond the actual construction" (111), these rendering techniques quite literally allowed each age to build its own Gothic.

Restoration is a theme that encompasses many of the examples throughout the volume because, as Feltman cogently explains, "the very conditions that have allowed the survival of 'original' medieval works have required their transformation through alternations, augmentations, and restorations" (1). The last section in the anthology entitled "Restoration" includes Cathleen Hoeniger's study of the salvaging of the Bronze Doors of Benevento (ch. 14), Catherine Emma Walden on the founder's tomb from Salisbury Cathedral (ch. 15), Meredith Cohen's analysis of the cleaning of the interior of Chartres Cathedral (ch. 16), and Sarah Thompson's splendid contribution on the ill-fated north tower of Saint-Denis (ch. 17). But fully half of the contributions in the volume address the issue of restoration in some fashion. Among the stand outs is Cohen's "Understanding the Restoration at Chartres Cathedral." Her nuanced account fully recognizes the ambiguities and contingencies that accompany any intervention (291), as she judiciously explores the most recent cleaning of the interior surfaces that took place at Chartres Cathedral between 2009-2017. [5] One may or may not disagree with Cohen's assessment of the outcome at Chartres, which she characterizes as drastic and amounting to "creative iconoclasm" (294), but she is specific and even-handed in relaying what occurred over time at the cathedral. Among the well-chosen points she brings to the discussion are her account of the highly porous stone used in the building, which had to be carefully prepared to receive the paint that covered most building interiors of the period (287), and her reference to the enveloping of the interior in soot after a coal heater was installed in 1893 (288), which undoubtedly contributed to the darkened interior that some modern commentators remember with nostalgia as "medieval." Cohen reasonably argues that the restoration did not make use of other technologies available, including digital modeling, with the result that the conserved interior no longer allows "unmediated access" to the archaeology of the building. (294) On the other hand, Cohen observes that the renovated interior surface preserves the building from the damaging effects of water and salt (294), and "does offer a better semblance of how the building might have looked when it was freshly completed in the Middle Ages" (293). She also notes that the intervention made available important new discoveries about the construction and embellishment of the medieval building (292), improved the effect of the window illumination (293-294) and rendered the building "respectfully clean and well kept" (294), not a small contribution in a building that serves as a place of worship, and not, as is sometimes implied, a museum or a laboratory. The many factors Cohen raises move the conversation about the controversial restoration of Chartres Cathedral forward productively and enlarge on the potential gains and losses from any such intervention.

There are many wonderful studies within Feltman and Thompson's Long Lives, as this review can only begin to suggest, with contributions by both well-known scholars and scholars from whom we will hear more in the future. Strong and helpful documentation is provided in individual bibliographies that follow each chapter. There is some unevenness in the individual contributions, which in this volume takes the form of chapters that do not rise sufficiently beyond the particulars of their own case studies. But my most serious complaint is the quality of the reproductions, especially surprising in a volume of this price. A number of the black and white photographs within the chapters are too dark to convey information or fully complement the visual analyses offered (for example, Figs. 4.2, 4.5, 7.1, 8.1, 9.1, 9.6, 10.5, and 14.1), and the sixteen color plates are not much better. This is indeed a sad note on which to conclude this review of Feltman and Thompson's anthology, a work that admirably enlarges the scope of the study of medieval works and the ways we conceive of them.

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Notes:

1. Michel Pastoureau, "'Programme': histoire d'un mot, histoire d'un concept," in Le programme: une notion pertinente en histoire de l'art medieval?, eds. Jean-Marie Guillouët and Claudia Rabel,Cahiers du Léopold d'Or, 12 (Paris, 2011), 17-25, is an important addition to this literature because he theorizes awareness of the concept of change and enrichment over time in medieval programs by turning to authors such as Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (pace Trachtenberg, who focuses on Alberti).

2. The subject of a provocative intervention by Jennifer Borland and Martha Easton, "Integrated Pasts: Glencairn Museum and Hammond Castle," Gesta 57, no. 1 (2018): 95-118.

3. Her chapter provides an interesting contrast to her earlier publication, "Out of Egypt: Inventing the Black Madonna of Le Puy in Text and image," Studies in Iconography 37 (2016): 1-29 because the Long Lives anthology allows her to develop different issues around this fascinating work.

4. Her example in n. 49, p. 43 now has a new link:https://archives.cantal.fr/rechercher/iconographie/photographies-cartes-postales-affiches-plans-documents-figures?detail=2570205.

5. To her extensive documentation, I would add Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger, "The New Chartres: An Exchange," The New York Review of Books, 17 December 2014, an important rejoinder to provocateur Martin Fuller, who set the controversy in motion.