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22.04.12 Dale, Pygmalion’s Power

22.04.12 Dale, Pygmalion’s Power

As M. F. Hearn noted decades ago, Romanesque sculpture is “singularly alluring to modern eyes. [Its] formal abstraction, its grotesque expressiveness, and its imaginative treatment of spiritual themes appeal to us with such immediacy that this sculpture elicits aesthetic responses similar to those evoked by the art of our own time.” [1] From the creation of the canon by Arthur Kingsley Porter in the 1920s through the formalism of Meyer Schapiro a decade later, iconological studies, social history, semiotics, deconstruction, Marxism, communication theory, and functionalism, through the Linguistic Turn, the Anthropological Turn, and the Material Turn, the stretchy, flexible figures of Romanesque tympana and capitals have joyfully accommodated our discipline’s many twists.

Thomas Dale’s book Pygmalion’s Power steps into this arena as the representative of the Sensory Turn. Whereas earlier scholarship has applied many lenses to this body of material, art historians have been less inclined to consider it part of the new affective piety that was developing in monastic communities of this time, a piety rooted in the body and its sensorium. For Dale, the sensual appeal of Romanesque sculpture, as a three-dimensional medium, was not merely a concession to the anticipated needs of new lay audiences but its very raison d’être. Cloister capitals with monstrous beasts, tympana with visions of Last Judgment and theophanies, jamb reliefs with didactic images, even tomb sculptures and reliquary busts--all spoke not just to the brains but also to the bodies of beholders; as Dale presents them, they both responded to and sparked new thinking about the importance of the human senses in establishing connections with God.

This approach has little in common with the “Age of Spirituality” extolled by previous generations, who often regarded medieval Christians as hostile to the body, or with the vision, first promulgated by Schapiro in the 1940s, of Romanesque sculpture as medieval popular culture--visual communications aimed at heterogenous, multilingual audiences, and displaying the artists’ bravado, their growing independence from their patrons’ strictures. In Dale’s presentation, the religious devotion of the monks and clergy was in no way incompatible with the celebration of the sensate body that this imagery both depicted and materialized.

Central to Dale’s book are the texts through which an array of highly educated, almost exclusively male monastic writers and theologians articulated their views on the positive value of the body and senses in understanding the human person and their relation to the divine. The Introduction sets the stage with a twelfth-century report of a holy monk’s vision of a carved wooden crucifix gesturing, then breathing forth an infant version of himself that flew into the waiting arms of a sculpted Virgin Mary. This chain reaction of image-animation provides the basis for Dale’s reference to the Pygmalion legend; the figural sculptures that flourished in Romanesque churches, Dale contends, were always potentially animate for their viewers, even if they veered from the lifelike appearance that, in Ovid’s tale, made Galatea so desirable.

Chapter One examines the kinds of images that sparked the monk’s vision, above all large-scale crucifixes and the enthroned Madonna figures known as the Throne of Wisdom. Dale builds on Ilene Forsyth’s seminal writings to remind us that such figures were often treated as sentient beings, providing a kind of all-seeing divine presence at judicial cases or forming the central characters of liturgical dramas. Such public or semi-public staging, together with written accounts of such figures moving or speaking, laid the groundwork for the kinds of imaginative activation that Dale suggests were pervasive in eleventh- and twelfth-century engagements with sculpture.

If he is right, such activation must sometimes have been less like Pygmalion’s sexy dream and more like a nightmare; I worry for visitors to the church of St. Pierre at Moissac who willed into life the emaciated, disheveled, naked female figure with the snakes dangling from her nipples and toads gnawing at her genitals, commonly called Luxuria. As Dale explains, nudity carried many meanings: it might signify prelapsarian innocence, as with Adam and Eve, or the purity of a soul liberated from its body, as in certain tomb sculptures; an idealized male nude might stand for the beauty of universal humanity or the dangerous vices of pre-Christian paganism. Citing the Classical associations of the nude body in Romanesque art, Dale argues for the possibility of sensual pleasure in medieval viewers’ responses to the Moissac woman, and the potential allure of seeing this nude at close range, her body accessible to hands as well as eyes.

Knowing that medieval churchmen were seldom keen to encourage lust, Dale acknowledges that the point of arousing desire at the church threshold was to make beholders aware of the need to curb it, a point he returns to in Chapter 4. Not all readers, I expect, will agree that the figure is a turn-on; the naked body certainly had more than symbolic resonances in medieval Christian culture, and the way the woman’s male-gendered demonic companion grasps her wrist and leers at her suggests that she might be best read not as the agent but as the victim of lust. And it’s hard to imagine that beholders of any gender would be able to filter out the snakes and vermin gnawing at the woman’s breasts and genitals to perceive in her a modern Venus that they might wish to bring to life. The negative visceral effects this figure produces--the pain and horror suggested by a vulnerable body undergoing a multi-pronged assault--are also part and parcel of the sculptural presence that Dale so rightly underscores.

Chapter Three leads us away from the allegorical body to memorial monuments to specific individuals, which Dale identifies as “portraits” (89 and throughout the chapter). His prime examples are the bronze tomb of the Saxon anti-king Rudolf of Swabia in Merseburg Cathedral, created shortly after his death in battle in 1080, and a gilt bronze head at the former Premonstratensian church at Cappenberg, purportedly made to represent the twelfth-century emperor Frederick Barbarossa and refashioned into a reliquary of John the Baptist. New reports on the manufacture of the latter, which appeared too late for Dale to consider, reveal that it was designed from the outset for the Baptist’s relics; a portrait bust of Barbarossa described in written sources was a separate object, long lost. [2] But this point does not much affect Dale’s argument, which presents both tomb and reliquary as manifesting the virtues of extraordinary persons in life and death, and making them eternally present as quasi-saints. This argument reinforces the seminal article Dale published in Speculum in 2002 [3], which opened up new ways of thinking about medieval portraiture--its conception of the individual as part of a collective, on the one hand, and its interest in rendering invisible spiritual virtues tangible on the other. Dale connects these sculptures with theological writings on the Resurrection body and other forms of material representation, such as the projecting relief figures on wax seals and in repoussé metalwork objects, to show the factors other than individual likeness that comprised a person’s image.

Dale connects this material with the “Pygmalion effect”--the way sculptures trigger desires that bring them to life in the minds of beholders--by citing two Old French poems (the Roman de Troie and Floire et Blancheflor) that feature fantastic descriptions of, respectively, a corpse that was dressed and displayed upright so as to look alive, and a pair of marble statues of two young lovers that seemed to touch and speak when the wind blew over them (116-17). These are evocative vignettes, but I’m not sure that they effectively bolster Dale’s claim that people encountering Rudolf of Swabia’s effigy would have readily imagined him into life. As Shirin Fozi points out in her recent study, the effigy’s horizontal orientation, low placement, and accompanying inscription leave no doubt that this body lacks physical life. [4] Dale does not mention the quip chroniclers attributed to Rudolf’s rival Henry IV, who upon seeing the effigy snickered “Would that all my enemies lay as honorably buried!” (Fozi, 43)--a statement that indicates that contemporary beholders--whatever their thoughts about the afterlife--were equipped to recognize a sculpted effigy as an inanimate representation of a dead person.

In Chapter Four Dale returns to the body’s desires, this time as a motivation for new iconographies. His subjects here are the “monstrous and deformed” (125) creatures that squirmed across capitals in monastic spaces, which, as Bernard of Clairvaux famously worried, distracted monks from pious meditation and filled their minds with sensual curiosity. Building on his 2001 article [5], Dale assembles many contemporary voices to show how such images participated in the monastic “craft of thought” (in Mary Carruthers’s phrase). They also, he contends, moved beyond the intellectual sphere to encompass many aspects of the human sensorium, evoking not only chaotic visual constructions but also cacophonous noises, sultry or painful tactile sensations, even pungent smells. And of course, when installed in the cloister, they prompted beholders to move their own bodies in order to see them. They were distractions from pure, abstract thought, Dale admits, but their excess was not without purpose: they externalized the unruly inner drives that monks had to expunge as part of their spiritual formation. If the naked woman at Moissac and the shining kings at Merseburg and Cappenberg were corporeal matrices onto which beholders projected desires for animation, the beasts in monastic cloisters were the opposite: reifications of illicit fantasies that surged through the inner lives of religious people and were best purged by being brought out into the open.

A discussion of the similarly bawdy capitals in the choir of the collegiate church of St-Pierre in Chauvigny, aimed this time at a mixed audience of canons and laypeople, shows the expansiveness of this quasi-therapeutic imagery. Here, alongside biblical narratives, double-bodied dragons chomp on the heads of naked men, and a (clothed) Whore of Babylon spreads open her bent legs and arms. Dale reads these, too, as a means of capturing the attention of beholders while allowing them to witness how the church and its rituals supplanted and neutralized those forces of evil.

Chapter Five brings us back outdoors, to the grandly sculpted portals marking thresholds into sacred space. Here Dale applies his sensory lens to the canonical tympana at Autun, Moissac, Conques, and Vézelay to show how these not only presented static, legible images of things to come but also formed multisensory triggers for experiencing God’s presence in the here and now. Citing the many evocations of sound, touch, and smell in these images, placing them into dialogue with the words and movements of processional liturgies, and summoning up the highly corporeal language that theologians used to render comprehensible the ineffable divine, Dale concludes that these tympana enabled viewers to perceive the sculpted images as alive, and feel themselves elevated into full, rapturous union with the divine.

Dale’s evocation of religious experience that closes this chapter prompts us to see the monumental arts of the twelfth century as continuous with the meditational writings being composed in contemporary monasteries, as in the work of Lauren Mancia, as well as with the intensely somatic devotional arts and practices that emerged in the later Middle Ages. [6] We know from the abundant scholarship on late medieval piety that ideas about affective, embodied religiosity took different forms and had different meanings for diverse practitioners; the flagellant confraternities of Tuscany and the Dominican nuns of northern Germany had different ideas about the images they saw (and the spectacles they created) while they were applying the flail to their backs, though both were doing so in order to establish some connection with God.

While I agree that twelfth-century people were no less concerned with bodily experience than those who lived after Francis of Assisi--and while I concur that monumental sculptures produce very different effects than smaller-scale pictorial arts--throughout Dale’s book I wondered about who, precisely, was being so physically enticed and spiritually uplifted. Whereas Chapter Four rested on an explicit distinction between monastic and lay viewership, other chapters give the sense that the erudite writings of learned men give insight into how everyone approached these carvings. Dale cites a twelfth-century Processional from Moissac to affirm the connections between the biblical imagery evoked there and scenes on the portal, and he suggests that this porch was sometimes used for funerary rites (86-87). On what other occasions would members of the religious community have used exterior sculptures for devotional viewing? Would the allure and novelty of carved stone images entice enclosed monastics outdoors when, as Dale makes clear, they were just as apt to reflect on sensual experiences in the library, scriptorium, cloister, and choir? If the portals’ primary intended audience was lay residents and pilgrims, as so much early scholarship assumed, surely their sensory lenses would have been very different. Conditions of manual labor and its concomitant forms of muscle memory, of sex and childbearing, of public toilets and bathing facilities, of walking vast expanses in the course of pilgrimage or trade--surely all these would have given the sculpted imagery of nudes and monsters, horsemen and musicians, kings and beggars a different, if no less sensorily oriented, tenor than the theologically informed readings Dale offers. That, of course, could be the subject of another book.

Returning to the monks and clerics whose experiences Dale centers, I found myself pondering another question about art, media, and the senses. A driving contention throughout the book is that “architectural sculpture flourished as a medium for monastic art in the eleventh and twelfth centuries precisely because it could appeal to multiple senses and foster a fully embodied religious experience” (5). While it’s undeniable that sculpture appeals to the body in particularly direct ways, it’s hardly unique in being sensually stimulating. In prior centuries, jeweled reliquaries, golden altar frontals, silver candlesticks, embroidered vestments and silk altar cloths, wall-paintings, and parchment manuscript pages, all surely sparked intense levels of sensual, bodily engagement for those who handled or saw them. Of course, these arts have already found their place in recent scholarship--in the writings of Adam Cohen, Beate Fricke, Eliza Garrison, Cynthia Hahn, Herbert Kessler, Jennifer Kingsley, Ittai Weinryb among others--and it’s wonderful to see Dale making a place for Romanesque sculpture in this domain. But the sumptuousness and variety of the other arts make generalizations about one or another medium’s special appeal to “the senses” and “embodied experience” hard to sustain; scholars interested in phenomenological issues need to find language to express the different kinds of sensory experience stimulated by a sequence of oversized, painted relief sculptures that we must throw our heads back to see and, say, an intricately modeled, cast-silver candlestick we could hold in our hands. Appeals to the body are everywhere in early as well as later medieval art, and Dale’s book helps us to see them better.

Such questions bring us back to the elephant in the room: the designers, masons, and carvers, whose names we don’t know but whose imaginations, muscles, and hands were responsible for the sensual forms on these portals. Those men’s agency is rarely acknowledged here but it defines the shape of this art, and the new light Dale casts on the peculiarities of sculptures should entice readers to look afresh at these artists, their techniques, their awareness of viewing angles, lighting conditions, and other strategies of viewer engagement. (Christopher Lakey’s book [7], like Fozi’s, makes a terrific companion to Dale’s in this respect.)

This appealing book can make a reader succumb to the vice of gluttony: I came away wanting more, more, more. I would have loved more pictures. Penn State University Press lived up to its characteristically high standards of production, but all too often, poring over a single black-and-white image of a sculptural work, I missed being able to see the sensual, haptic properties that Dale was so vividly describing. A variety of angles to show the sculpture in the natural course of approaching it, or a sequence of images over the course of the day to indicate how motifs recede or project in different lighting--these sorts of things would have helped bring the sculptures into the kind of fulsome life Dale claims for them. Selfishly, I also wanted more of Dale’s own voice. Refreshing as it is to see a senior scholar be so generous in acknowledging the work of his forebears and colleagues, I wanted to have him guide me more directly through the intricacies of these images, and teach me to see them through his eyes.

At the beginning of this review, I placed Pygmalion’s Power in a long chain of scholarship on Romanesque sculpture, and in wrapping up I want to aver, in joy and gratitude, that this chain is far from being at its end. My wish for “more more more” is testimony to the many tantalizing doors Dale up, the new paths he beckons readers to pursue. His gracious, learned, stimulating book should be essential reading for medieval art historians. One may not agree with all its conclusions, but the book is true to its ambitious name: seen through the sensory lens Dale brings to them, the most familiar figures in Romanesque art burst into a new, exciting life.



1. M.F. Hearn, Romanesque Sculpture: The Revival of Monumental Stone Sculpture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Oxford: Phaidon, 1981), 13.

2. See the presentations by Henrike Haug and colleagues at a 2019 conference in Selm, Germany:

3. Thomas E.A. Dale, “The Individual, the Resurrected Body, and Romanesque Portraiture: The Tomb of Rudolf von Schwaben in Merseburg.” Speculum 77, 3 (July 2002): 707-743.

4. Shirin Fozi, Romanesque Tomb Effigies: Death and Redemption in Medieval Europe, 1000-1200 (University Park: Penn State, 2021).

5. Thomas E.A. Dale, “Monsters, Corporeal Deformities, and Phantasms in the Cloister of St-Michel-de-Cuxa,” Art Bulletin 83 (2001): 402-36.

6. Lauren Mancia, Emotional Monasticism: Affective Piety in the Eleventh-Century Monastery of John of Fécamp (2019); The Saturated Sensorium:Principles of Perception and Mediation in the Middle Ages, ed. Hans Henrik Lohfert Jørgensen et al (2015).

7. Christopher R. Lakey, Sculptural Seeing: Relief, Optics, and the Rise of Perspective in Medieval Italy (New Haven: Yale, 2018).