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22.06.01 Preisinger (ed.), Medieval Art at the Intersection of Visuality and Material Culture

22.06.01 Preisinger (ed.), Medieval Art at the Intersection of Visuality and Material Culture

This volume displays one of the major issues of scholarly publishing, particularly of conference proceedings. In her acknowledgments, Raphaèle Preisinger notes that the conference on which this volume is based took place in 2010 (21). The volume was published in 2021. The reasons for the delay are not explained, but the delay itself is unfortunate in that it affects the impact the chapters in this volume will have on scholarship. How authors do or do not address this question in their essays varies greatly throughout the volume. Cynthia Hahn notes that her text as it stands was completed in 2012, and apologizes that new bibliography that has appeared in the past decade could not be taken into account (181n1), although the author did add a few relevant titles to the bibliography at the end of her chapter (204-09). [1] Bissera Pentcheva notes that her contribution was the first article she wrote on the topic in question, but that the second essay she completed on it was published earlier, in 2016 (137n2). [2] Despite the delay, Pentcheva’s bibliography is up to date with works published until 2020 (155-58). Tina Bawden notes (211, starred note) that she greatly expanded her view of the topic since 2010, and her bibliography (236-38) includes titles published up to 2017. Silke Tammen, who passed away in 2018, did of course not have an opportunity to update her essay. The other authors do not comment on delays and updates, and the scope of their bibliographies varies greatly. Bertold Hub’s extensive bibliography (76-90) goes up to 2015. Wendy Shaw’s (115-17) ends in 2007. Jens Rüffer’s (133-36) contains titles published up to 2018. While this overview of updates and scopes of bibliographies may appear tedious, it is crucial for the further content of this review: with the exception of Hahn’s and Pentcheva’s chapters, the contributions are not fully up to date, but the extent of the disconnect between the historiography presented and the current state of scholarship varies widely.

In the introduction, Preisinger poses the problem of understanding medieval visualities, with a particular focus on the relationship between the study of, on the one hand, materiality and, on the other hand, visuality (23). A central issue here is of course the ocular centrism of much of art history in past decades, a problem that has received much attention from scholars in various subfields of art history, particularly those working on pre-modern materials in the past 25 years or so. A related, somewhat more recent trend is the study of materiality, as Preisinger points out 23-24). One might also point to the trend of sensory art history, which has been prominent for instance in the work of Bissera Pentcheva, one of the contributors. Both materiality and sensory studies are represented in the series Sense, Matter, Medium, edited by Fiona Griffiths (Stanford University), Beatrice Kitzinger (Princeton University) and Kathryn Starkey (Stanford University) since 2018. [3] Here already, the volume suffers from the publication delays as such recent work is not taken into account in the introduction. Preisinger notes “how crucial it is to emphasize visuality in the analysis of art and artefacts even after the ‘material turn’” (32). While certainly essential, this claim is not new in that scholarship of the material turn and the (multi-)sensory turn does not dismiss visuality, but rather reframes it.

The scope of the contributions mostly covers the Christian, European Middle Ages, with the exception of Shaw’s chapter on aspects of Islamic visuality, and Pentcheva’s that compares Western and Byzantine modes of vision. Thus, the introduction’s claim that the volume covers a wide scope of topics (26) is only partially valid to me, and limited by the fact that the largely European and Christian focus is not acknowledged. To the contributions, in order of the table of contents: Hub offers a thorough and helpful discussion of the western tradition of visuality, with an admirably wide range of primary sources from antiquity to the seventeenth century, focusing on the major theories of vision (intromission versus extramission), but also the emergence of linear perspective, and a brief introduction to ophthalmology. A question mark to this (Islamicist) review is the use of the term “Arabic optics” (57) to refer to the transmission of theories of vision established by authors such as Ibn Sina, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn al-Haytham to the Latin West. The following chapter, by Wendy Shaw, works to bring together concepts of visuality in the Islamic world with double perspective: attitudes towards images, on the one hand, and attitudes to the veil, on the other hand. This ambitious perspective is difficult to cover in one short chapter. This chapter is also the one that suffers the most from not having been updated, especially since Shaw’s own book on perception in Islam was published three years ago. [4] The scholarship on the question of the image and figural representation in Islamic art has also greatly expanded, as has scholars’ understanding of Islamic visualities. [5] Rüffer examines specifically Cistercian attitudes to representation and color in religious architecture, and how that type of stripped-down visuality played into devotion. Pentcheva examines the concept of methexis (participation) and how it relates to the perception of reliquaries and cult images, with a specific focus on the issue of material flux and light reflections, a central theme of the author’s scholarship, also in her most recent project on Conques. [6] Beyond creating the new, comparative argument, the chapter also provides a clear summary of Pentcheva’s work in a helpful nutshell for scholars who are not yet familiar with it and would like an inroad before fully engaging with her numerous important publications. Tammen addresses both the representation of jewelry in medieval western religious art, and jewelry pieces with religious images on them; reflection, vision, transparency; radiance and small scale are central features in these representations. Hahn discusses the question of guided vision in the perception of Christian relics in the West. One mediating device is the use of rock crystal on reliquaries use since Carolingian period, rather than--as often stated--since the Fourth Crusade (187). Another central device is the creation of narrow windows in front of relics or reliquaries, forcing squinting and blurred vision (193). Finally, Bawden examines such narrow windows (also called “squints”) on screens in medieval English churches, where they were installed to guide lines of sight. Overall, the contributions provide important insights into medieval visualities, especially western, Christian ones. Had the volume been published in a more timely manner, its impact would have been much larger.



1. Notably Cynthia J. Hahn, and Avinoam Shalem, eds., Seeking Transparency: Rock Crystals across the Medieval Mediterranean (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2020).

2. Bissera V. Pentcheva, “Glittering Eyes: Animation in the Byzantine Eikōnand the Western Imago,” Codex Aqvilarensis 32 (2016): 209-236.

3. (accessed 10 May 2022).

4. Wendy M. K. Shaw, What is “Islamic” Art?: Between Religion and Perception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). On Islamic visuality, see also Samer Akkach, ed. Naẓar: Vision, Belief, and Perception in Islamic Cultures (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

5. Mika Natif, “The Painter’s Breath and Idol Anxiety in Islamic Art,” in Idol Anxiety, ed. J. Ellenbogen and A. Tugendhaft (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 41-55; Christiane J. Gruber, “Idols and Figural Images in Islam: A Brief Dive into a Perennial Debate,” in The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the Globe, ed. Christiane J. Gruber (London: Ginkgo Library, 2019), 8-29, and further chapters in that volume.

6., accessed 10 May 2022.