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22.06.04 Patton/Schilb (eds.), The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography

22.06.04 Patton/Schilb (eds.), The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography

The Index of Medieval Art began life in 1917 as the Index of Christian Art, the product “of the iconographic research that was actively pursued in the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton [University] during the years 1910 to 1917, and at first was planned only as a listing of subjects and objects of early Christian art.” Across the next decades the Index’s scope grew together with the field of medieval art, such that by the 1940s it had assumed the general form it would hold for the next eighty years or so, encompassing “the whole of mediaeval Christian art, to the year 1400.” [1] In 2017, in light of the reality that “it now includes secular subjects as well as a growing number of subjects from medieval Jewish and Islamic culture,” [2] the Index of Christian Art became the Index of Medieval Art. To mark this transformation, the Index also launched Signa, a new book series through Penn State University Press that “explores questions of image and meaning in...medieval visual culture.” [3] This expansive approach well exceeds the study of “the pictorial illustration, or description of a subject by means of figures and drawings” that had been the interest of the Index’s founders, but it also posits value in their work of collecting and classification, even as it leaves other aspects of the iconographic method open to questioning.

Such questioning is at the heart of the volume here under review, The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography, edited by Pamela A. Patton and Henry D. Schilb, which derives from the conference, “Plus ça change ...? The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography,” held at the Index in 2016. [4] It includes revised versions of seven of the eight papers delivered at the conference. This is not the first such reevaluation of iconography under the auspices of the Index. In their clearly crafted introduction, Patton and Schilb make particular reference to the 1990 conference and resulting 1993 volume, Iconography at the Crossroads, which examined the ways in which scholars at the end of the twentieth century were approaching a method born at its beginning. [5] That volume highlighted the tensions and possibilities in the adaptation of a text-driven iconography to, on the one hand, the increasingly visual interests of fields beyond art history and, on the other, an art history newly engaged with questions of reception, social systems, and the instability of meaning. The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography builds on this foundation to consider such contemporary concerns as materiality and reuse, perception, the limits of the iconographic method in an expanded medieval world, and what we might term iconographies of reception, whether during the Middle Ages or in the modern world.

The essays aptly begin with “Found Iconography,” Dale Kinney’s exploration of Erwin Panofsky’s three levels of interpretation, the pre-iconographic, the iconographic, and the iconological, in the context of the reuse of Classical iconography in Christian contexts. Kinney compares Panofsky’s understanding of Christianization at the iconographic level, the interpretatio christianis that “swap[s] the name of a Christian subject for the original pagan one” (9), to instances of the reduction of images to the pre-iconographic level of visual description. In erasing troublesome identities, such “denaming” offers a second way to purify images of Classical deities and heroes for Christian contexts. Meanwhile, textual descriptions of pagan iconography would have permitted elite Christian audiences to recognize the original figures. Using as her primary example depictions of Harpocrates on eight spoliated capitals in the twelfth-century basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere in Rome, Kinney proposes that these three processes permitted medieval viewers to reinscribe the capitals with diverse iconographic meanings, each holding further iconological possibilities, and even to do so simultaneously. At Santa Maria, these include not only an (expected) allegory of Christian triumph but evidence for the (believed) history of the church and even direct exhortations to pious silence through Harpocrates’ finger-to-mouth gesture. Catherine Fernandez pursues this notion of meaning as process diachronically, tracing parallel narratives of the accumulation of sacred or potentially sacred objects and the elaboration of a Carolingian past at Saint-Sernin in Toulouse. Traversing more than a thousand years, from the formation of a late antique necropolis around the original martyrium to sixteenth-century nave paintings of the church’s history, Fernandez articulates the possible role of found iconography--in this case, early Christian sarcophagi depicting Christ and the apostles unearthed during thirteenth-century renovations--in the creation of a late medieval apostolic cult at the church. The existence of a prior set of objects linked to Charlemagne by inscription (the Godescalc Evangeliary), local legend (the Gemma Augustea), or form (an oliphant) provided a conceptual receptacle for the holy bodies, which became relics similarly donated by the emperor. Drawing on the concept of anachronism as articulated by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, [6] she provides a credible, if speculative, example of the process of denaming and renaming in operation.

D. Fairchild Ruggles and Elina Gertsman are both concerned with the trace, the physical presence in the work of art of the artist for the former and the audience in the latter; this focus requires them to lay out patterns of attention that reorient us away from what Ruggles identifies as the elite class bias in traditional iconography. Ruggles’s essay exemplifies one of the expansions that underpinned the Index’s change of name, the incorporation of works of Islamic art, and her essay offers a theoretically rich and clearly written introduction to issues in the interpretation of Islamic art that would function well in advanced undergraduate or graduate instruction in methods or Islamic art. As Ruggles makes clear, iconography in the Classical or Christian sense is an uneasy fit for a tradition that eschews figuration and narrative in works of religious art. In most earlier Islamic contexts where figures appear, they “tend to be stock types that do not belong to a specific narrative” (59), a status that frustrates text-dependent iconography, while the logocentrism of Islam makes the word itself the subject of artistic presentation, not representation. This emphasis on the presence of the word also encourages viewers (and scholars) to attend to visible signatures and signs of non-elite craftspeople otherwise erased from the historical record. Extending this logic to unintentional traces of use, such as the marks left by generations of ropes drawing filled buckets out of well-heads, permits us to sense the presence of further marginalized groups: enslaved persons and women. Although separated by two intervening chapters, Gertsman’s essay picks up the idea of use and wear by investigating the iconographic implications of the touching, rubbing, kissing, and scratching that occurred as medieval (and later) persons interacted with works of art. While the emphasis on books does return us to an elite sphere, this work, which intersects with other recent studies of readers’ marks, vandalism, and “dirty books,” [7] offers a different corrective to the concept of fixed meaning than those set forth by Kinney and Fernandez. Her contribution lies in moving beyond the recovery of patterns of use to understanding the effects of that use on the meaning of such manipulated images, which she recommends art historians reconceptualize as “tool[s] to be used, not...objects[s] to be admired” (132). Through the example of a fifteenth-century Netherlandish book of hours (BL Harley 2985), Gertsman lays out potential theological significances of the process of erasure of Christ’s body from the manuscript’s images, including (to paraphrase the author) its paralleling of God’s disappearance from the visible world, of the supersession of corporeal by spiritual and intellectual vision, and of apophatic devotional practices. In Gertsman’s example, the lack of iconographic fixity lies in the material instability of the images themselves.

The remaining three essays turn their attention explicitly to perception, whether spiritual, ocular, or photographic. Charles Barber returns to the question of a “hesychastic aesthetics,” a mode of perceiving works of Byzantine art that would support this movement’s quest to know God through ceaseless meditative prayer. His focus is a single image, the ca. 1370 representation of the Metamorphosis in BN MS gr. 1242, which through its diagrammatic structure, striking gold, blue, and grey color scheme, shaped frame, dramatic presentation of the transfigured Christ, and visibly stunned Apostles would seem to a modern viewer to simultaneously invite and model spiritual contemplation. Acknowledging this apparent fittingness, Barber argues that hesychasm should be understood as “a preparation for a way of seeing” (90) the image, not as an iconographic source for its creation. Instead, he suggests that hesychasm was able to appropriate existing icons and images, for the difference lay exactly in the nature and objectives of the hesychast’s perception. Kirk Ambrose’s concerns are, by contrast, superficially mundane: depictions of the limitations of physical vision, an iconography of sightedness. Opening with a fifteenth-century bas-de-page image of aided animal vision, Ambrose probes the history, function, and depictions of spectacles in later medieval Europe. The result, however, is anything but superficial; instead, he provides a wide-ranging discussion of the multiple possible meanings of eyeglasses in medieval art, from a sign of advanced age or a lifetime dedicated to study to a metaphor for the corruptibility of the human body and the imperfection of human knowledge--all of which rings true to this bespectacled reviewer, now both myopic and presbyopic, as it will to many reading these words. Central to his analysis is disability studies’ concept of “prostheses as instantiations of networks of dependency,” as pointing to “the enhancement and fundamental limitations” of the human body (104), in this case the faculty of sight; the epistemological centrality of vision supports one of the most disturbing readings presented by Ambrose, namely spectacles as a symbol for the inability of Jews to see the true nature of Christ.

Art historians are intimately familiar with the rhetorical work performed by our own carefully chosen (and even personally created) photographic illustrations. The final essay in the volume, Jacqueline Jung’s “The Work of Gothic Sculpture in the Age of Photographic Reproduction,” confronts this power through examples drawn the study of German Gothic sculpture, two from the National Socialist era and one from her own recent work. Arguing that “different approaches to photographic mediation can open up new insights not only into the formal and spatial qualities of these objects but also into their iconographic nuances” (162), Jung begins by presenting the straightforward, evenly lit documentary style favored by the Bildarchiv Foto Marburg as the product, in part, of a German war machine able to control the conditions of photography (e.g., by using French POWs to remove all pews from Chartres Cathedral); the consistency of presentation supports the integration of monuments from occupied France into the history of German art. In contrast, the photographer Walter Hege used dramatic lighting to create “portraits” of such sculptures as that of Uta of Naumberg or the Bamberg Rider, which he paired with portraits of living Germans to create a deep history for concepts of “racial feeling [Rassengefühle] and blood affinity [Blutsverwandtschaft]” (169; quoting a review of his work in the contemporary Dresden press) leveraged with horrific acuity by the Nazi regime. Jung ends on a more hopeful note, with a glimpse of her recent work on the physical presence and dynamism of sculptures intended to be encountered by a mobile viewer. As the length of these remarks may indicate, this is a particularly pertinent essay for its timeliness in an age of attention to the reception of the Middle Ages and to political uses of visual rhetoric, and because the familiarity of photography and cinema combined with the persistent disciplinary invisibility of the important issue it raises make it an excellent article for undergraduate teaching. [8] My students were particularly shaken by the reframing of Uta, whom they recognize as the inspiration for Snow White’s icily beautiful Evil Queen, as the epitome of “glorious [Nazi] German womanhood” (171).

Patton and Schilb, the team at the Index and Penn State Press, and all of the authors are to be commended for an excellent edited collection. The physical object is well crafted: beautifully formatted, carefully copyedited, and of a size that is more manageable than the Index’s larger prior volumes. Most importantly, however, the book succeeds in presenting a collection of seven essays that roam widely across medieval European and Islamic art, addressing different types of objects from different cultures using different methods, yet cohere around the core question of how to find meaning amid instability, whether material, perceptual, or iconographic. Yet meaning they do find--a comforting lesson, perhaps, for our own moment of extreme instability, simultaneously political, social, and climatic.



1. Helen Woodruff, The Index of Christian Art at Princeton University: A Handbook, with a foreword by Charles Rufus Morey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1942), vii.

2. “Welcome to the Index of Medieval Art,” The Index of Medieval Art, available at, consulted 26 April 2022.

3. “Signa: Papers of the Index of Medieval Art at Princeton University,”Pennsylvania State University Press, available at (accessed 26 April 2022).

4. 29 April 2016; see the description in “Past Conferences and Events,” The Index of Medieval Art, available at (accessed 26 April 2022).

5. Iconography at the Crossroads: Papers from the Colloquium Sponsored by the Index of Christian Art, Princeton University, 23–24 March 1990, ed. Brendan Cassidy, Index of Christian Art Occasional Papers, no. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

6. Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010).

7. Kathryn M. Rudy, “Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts using a Densitometer,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art2, nos. 1-2 (2010), DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2010.2.1.1.

8. See, e.g., Robert S. Nelson, “The Slide Lecture, or The Work of Art History in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (2000): 414-434.