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22.04.13 Luxford (ed.), Tributes to Paul Binski

22.04.13 Luxford (ed.), Tributes to Paul Binski

Over the course of his distinguished career, Paul Binski has ranged widely, contributing to the scholarly conversation about many different facets of medieval art and architecture, often stressing the interaction and complementarity of different media. Appropriately, therefore, this handsome volume in his honor also ranges widely. It opens with editor Julian Luxford’s short biography of Binski, which calls attention to the integrative tendency evident throughout Binski’s work, while also noting a shift in emphasis from critical theory in his earlier writings to rhetorical modes and aesthetics more recently. A chronological listing of Binski’s many publications comes next, providing useful context for appreciation of his best-known books, such as The Age of Chivalry (1987, with J. J. G. Alexander), Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets (1995), Medieval Death (1996), Becket’s Crown (2004), Gothic Wonder (2014), and Gothic Sculpture (2019). The thirty-four essays that follow are grouped into four sections dedicated respectively to the architecture, sculpture, painting, and intellectual culture of the Gothic era. In geographical terms, the distribution of topics effectively mirrors Binski’s own priorities, with a strong English core enriched by essays on the art of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Germany, and Central Europe, in addition to thematic topics that transcend geographical boundaries. Similarly, twenty-two of the contributors work in England, including nine of Binski’s Cambridge colleagues, while the others hail from the US, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, and Norway. This breadth, and the eminence of many of the authors, clearly attest to the luster of Binski’s international reputation.

The architectural section of the book ranks as its shortest, with “just” seven essays, but these are highly diverse in terms of both geography and method. Gabriel Byng makes the valuable and straightforward observation that the rate of architectural productivity in the early fourteenth century when the Decorated Style predominated was higher than in the centuries that followed, even though the cumulative output of the Perpendicular period was impressive. Meredith Cohen discusses the proportions and geometry of the destroyed chapel of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which she and her collaborators have digitally reconstructed based on close analysis not only of texts, but also of its surviving pier fragments. Emily Guerry argues that the original interior tribune of the Sainte-Chapelle was at least roughly contemporary with the building itself, and that it was meant to evoke the throne of heaven prepared for the Second Coming. James Hillson then reflects on the central role of linearity in Gothic design, calling attention to the interplay between systematic and flexible planning modes seen in complex forms such as the nodding ogee arch. Ethan Matt Kavaler proposes that the facetted diamond vaults of Germany and Central Europe may have been inspired by Islamic sources, such as the porch vault of the Madrassa Al-Ashrafiyya in Jerusalem. Turning from the visual to the verbal, Tom Nickson considers the thirteenth-century Spanish deacon Lucas of Túy, whose descriptions of architecture emphasize broad characteristics such as beauty and strength rather than details of design, and the roles of the patron more than those of the builder. Finally, Zoë Opačićexplores the role of Emperor Charles IV as a founder and funder of religious institutions, noting that his financial contributions were more limited than his fame as a creative and engaged patron might suggest. By showcasing approaches variously emphasizing medieval patrons, builders, and commentators, these architectural essays together provide a valuable sample of current scholarship in the field.

The following section, on sculpture, consists of nine essays, of which the final six deal with the British Isles. The first three, however, range more widely. Claudia Bolgia argues that the tabernacles of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome expressed the competing powers of the civic government and the papacy, respectively. Jean-Marie Guillouët shows that elaborate carved inscriptions in the portals of Nantes and Saintes Cathedrals effectively become elements of sculpture in themselves, thus complicating the relationship between text and image. Justin Kroesen calls attention to the remarkably rich survival of medieval liturgical ensembles and church interiors from Gotland, before Julian Luxford considers the contract for a now fragmentary transi tomb ordered around 1500 by the English squire John Ormond and his wife Johanna. Robert Mills then discusses the sculpted wodewoses, or wild folk, that appear on many churches in East Anglia, suggesting that defense was a major theme of their multi-facetted symbolism, particularly in monastic contexts. Two essays related to Wells Cathedral follow. In the first, John Munns argues that an openwork wooden cylinder preserved at the cathedral was crafted in the late thirteenth century as a hanging pyx cover, while in the second, Matthew Reeve considers the richly sculpted spandrel fragments from the thirteenth-century Lady Chapel that once stood just south of the cathedral, arguing that this lost structure deserves to be seen as an ancestor for the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. Laura Slater then examines the corbels carved with musicians on the north chapel of Saint Mary’s parish church in Cogges, Oxfordshire, noting that they were meant to address the monks serving the chapel, who may have seen the figures as satirizing the parishioners. In all of these essays, the relationship of sculpture to its architectural context figures centrally. In the final sculptural essay, by contrast, Beth Williamson explores two other themes also prominent in Paul Binski’s scholarship, namely the emotional impact and materiality of sculpture. While discussing the Kilcorban Madonna, the oldest wooden sculpture in Ireland, she thus addresses not only the figure’s gentle smile, but also the symbolic connections between its constituent wood, the Tree of Life, and the cross of Christ.

In the third section of the book, nine essays consider Gothic painting, manuscripts, and poetics. In the first of these, Jessica Berenbeim uses consideration of the tables of contents in Cambridge MS Gg. 4. 32 as a springboard for brief comments about the intellectual structuring of manuscript contents more generally. The following essay by Spike Bucklow combines theory with more material concerns, proposing that expensive blue and gold pigments on English rood screens were used to designate the heavenly realm into which church congregants sought entry. Marcia Kupfer then offers a compelling analysis of the fifteenth-century Alba Bible, arguing that the prominence given to circumcision scenes in its illustrations served as an affirmation of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, a signal that would have resonated with the Jews and conversos, including Rabbi Moses Arragel, who were compelled to participate in the manuscript’s production. Next, Jean-Pascal Pouzet reflects on the interplay between technical and aesthetic considerations in the planning and crafting of medieval manuscripts, with particular attention to the “codicological stratigraphy” of Cambridge MS Kk. 4. 25. In a broader essay, Miri Rubin briefly traces the changing relationship between representations of church and synagogue between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, noting that that the turn from a sisterly to a more oppositional relationship became evident in texts such as the poetry of Clopin before manifesting itself fully in the visual arts. Kathryn Rudy then argues persuasively that the fifteenth-century Bolton/Blackburn Hours incorporates two originally independent devotional books, one intended for adults, and the other for children, a conclusion she bases on physical reshuffling of a paper mock-up of the manuscript, as well as on examination of wear patterns on the original pages. Next, Rocío Sánchez Ameijeiras invokes a range of manuscript examples from the Utrecht Psalter to the Cantigas de Santa Maria while exploring the relationship between rhetorical modes in text and the “visual poetry” of illuminators. In the following essay, Lucy Wrapson argues that two depictions of saints on the rood screens of North Tuddenham and Rackheath in Norfolk were based on portraits of Henry VII, the first English monarch to have official portraits of a set type. Rounding out this section, Patrick Zutshi carefully considers the evidence for the fifteen lost images of Christ’s holy face on Saint Veronica’s sudarium that were painted by Matteo Giovannetti for Pope Urban V, arguing that they likely resembled one of Matteo’s earlier paintings from the papal palace in Avignon, and that one was likely given as a papal gift to Emperor Charles IV.

The final section of the book deals with the broad theme of “Gothic Art and Ideas,” which has been interpreted in widely varying ways by the nine authors involved. In a broadly sweeping essay, Mary Carruthers explores the intellectual and etymological history linking the alchemical process of sublimation to the spiritual process of striving for the divine. Jill Caskey then traces the changing terms used in inventories describing the treasury of San Nicola in Bari, noting that such terms could involve function, provenance, technique, material, form, or style, and that they can thus be used to trace changing tastes and priorities. Lucy Donkin’s essay considers the Schauinsland Window at the Minster of Freiburg im Breisgau, which depicts miners like those who fueled the city’s prosperity working underground beneath a scene of Christ’s Transfiguration, thus associating Freiburg with Mount Tabor and their underground labor with the death that precedes the Resurrection. In the following essay, Kate Heard uses written sources such as gift lists and inventories in an attempt to assess the lost set of ecclesiastical textiles that belonged to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Robert Maniura then reflects on the value of studying supposedly miracle-working images, using a case study of the panel painting known as Our Lady of Częstochowa as his point of departure. Alexander Marr discusses Albrecht Dürer’s ambivalent attitude to creative imagination, which he saw as dangerous and highly fallible, but which he deployed in a disciplined way to create works of great ingenuity and virtuosity. M. A. Michael explores the concept of “fine art” as it relates to the development of Gothic painting in the thirteenth century, arguing that formal innovations in the period were catalyzed by vibrant exchange between contributors to an increasingly professional class of image-makers. Conrad Rudolph then considers the textual and visual evidence for the training of tour guides in the Middle Ages, arguing that such guides must have played an important role in shaping pilgrims’ experience of sacred sites. Finally, Betsy Sears brings her readers into the twentieth century, revealing the lecture notes and writing fragments associated with the synthetic book on the Gothic style that Erwin Panofsky planned early in the 1940s, which he abandoned in order to focus more specifically on Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis.

These essays vary significantly in terms of length and format, no less than in terms of topic. While most of them have 7-9 text pages and 5-6 illustrations, the texts range from 4 pages (Berenbeim) to 12 pages (Sears), and the illustration counts range from 0 (Nickson, Berenbeim, Pouzet, Carruthers, and Sears) to 13 (Marr). These differences underscore the diversity of approach evident in this volume, which makes generalization about its contents difficult. It seems telling, however, that many of the essays invoke the notion of rhetorical modes, whether verbal or visual, a theme that has figured prominently in Paul Binski’s own work. Taken as a whole, moreover, the book certainly provides strong testimony for the vibrancy of the scholarly conversation to which he has contributed. Given Binski’s emphasis on the materiality of medieval art, finally, the high quality of the book itself deserves note: the many illustrations are sharply and attractively reproduced, the paper is strikingly smooth and white, and the sewn hardcover binding feels strong but not tight. In sum, therefore, this handsome and wide-ranging volume stands as a fitting tribute to Paul Binski’s career, one that medievalist art historians of many stripes will have good reason to consult.