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22.06.19 Leclercq-Marx et al, Iconographie médiévale entre Antiquité et art roman

22.06.19 Leclercq-Marx et al, Iconographie médiévale entre Antiquité et art roman

This monstrous volume (this is a compliment) includes 28 papers by Université libre de Bruxelles professor Jacqueline Leclercq-Marx (from now on JLM), published between 1975 and 2013 and covering one-third of her academic output. It is divided into four sections, each of which is prefaced by an expert in the particular field. Section 1 “Transferts, emprunts et réappropriations” is introduced by Romanesque art expert Xavier Barral i Altet and contains texts showcasing JLM’s method of deciphering how the Middle Ages--with all its contradictions--perceived and appropriated Antiquity. In Section 2, presented by bestiary specialist Rémy Cordonnier, are articles on bestiaries and cosmographic literature and representations. Section 3, presented by medieval iconography specialist Christian Heck, comprises papers on issues of anthropological nature and on material history. In Section 4, prefaced by epigraphist Cécile Treffort, are texts focusing on medieval artisans/artists, their signatures and self-representations, plus a text on manuscript initials. The whole is preceded by an essay portraying the author and explaining the reasons for the publication--to present to her, at the conclusion of her academic career, a volume “en témoignage d’amitié, d’affection et de reconnaissance,” a “veritable « Manuel d’iconographie médiévale »” (11)--and a text by the author herself, followed by a list of her publications.

In her introductory text, JLM outlines, in a direct, personal tone and with typical fine Belgian humor, her academic parcours and her methodology. As she says, her “marque de fabrique” consists in establishing “un corpus iconographique le plus complet possible, dûment décrit, contextualisé, « critiqué »” (13), and she acknowledges her debt both to the Duby-Le Goff tradition of the history of ideas and of their cultural contexts, and to Erwin Panofsky and his continuation of the Warburgian Nachleben der Antike tradition. The volume conveniently has analytical indexes of proper names, places, and of the manuscripts and incunabula used. There are 160 illustrations, most of them in color and several of which are presumably photographs taken by colleagues and therefore of less well-known museum items or monument elements. Given the diverse nature of the subject matter, there is understandably no general bibliography, but there are very rich bibliographical references in the notes of each paper, even updated when necessary. One can assuredly say that this volume has been prepared with love.

What first impresses the reader is the rigor of JLM’s methodology--one wonders how one could refer to her “regard imaginatif” (27) when her gaze seems to be all but imaginative--as well as the immensity of the corpus of texts and images she studies, and the ease with which she moves through it; one could readily call her a modern comestor. The timeframe of her subject matter, as the title of the book reveals, spans from Antiquity to the end of the period of Romanesque Art (mid-twelfth century). The specimens examined belong to a wide range of media--sculpted capitals, misericords and chimney decorative elements, pavement mosaics, textiles, manuscript initials, and miniatures--and JLM also dedicates several papers to the fascination that “gold and glitter” held for the medieval person, and thus to the works of metal founders and goldsmiths. A vast geographical territory is covered, stretching from the British Isles to Novgorod, whose cathedral has gates sculpted by Magdeburg bronzesmiths. JLM inspects not only Latin inscriptions but also Runic.

When reading the papers, it becomes obvious that JLM is attracted to forms--mainly to forms that mutate in, at first sight, disconcerting ways, and that are always shifting, often turning into atypical hybrids--as well as to the mechanisms of transfer and contamination leading to them. She has dedicated the largest part of her research to monstrous races, so popular in literature from Late Antiquity onwards, above all to the siren; a massive study of hers is available online thanks to the site It is known that “le monstre n’est pas une figure innocente, et qu’il est intimement lié à des terreurs ancrées dans l’inconscient collectif” (34), but what the non-initiated do not fully realize are the infinite manifestations of these protean monsters. Passionate for exhaustivity, JLM discovers, among the normally double-tailed sirens of Roman art, a siren with a triple tail, the middle one being an apparent phallic extension; she ferrets out a manifestation of Minotaurus, the sea monster Quinotaurus, the father of Meroveus and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, from the chronicle of Pseudo-Fredegar; she draws our attention to lactating female centaurs, such as the one appearing on a sarcophagus in the Pio Clementino Museum in the Vatican. What matters to her is not which forms have prevailed--the ones, we could say, with the greatest number of “hits,” which would have permitted the creation of a more coherent narration of the fortuna of these monstrous beings--but to understand the workings of the human imagination, the anthropological aspect, and the mechanisms of transmission. JLM not only questions the obvious sources--Paulus Orosius, Fulgentius, Isidore of Seville, the various Vatican mythographers, or the encyclopedists of the thirteenth century--but also scans every little item, be it text or image, such as the riddles of Aldhelm of Malmesbury Abbey or the unclassifiable chimera on the south gate of the church of Saint-Pierre d’Aulnay. “Il n'existe pas de version « vraie » dont toutes les autres seraient des copies ou des échos déformés. Toutes les versions appartiennent au mythe,” was the mantra of Claude Levi-Strauss. JLM chooses to present the whole range of manifestations of each entity she investigates, and the result seems quite chaotic to those who do not know how to navigate. But she does and she shows us how.

She studies mappae mundi littered with all sorts of monsters, with the more monstrous being placed further away from the center, namely Christianized humankind; people on the margins wait to be converted. But she deals also with the monsters who cohabitate with the vulgus, close to everyday people; those of popular tradition. Thus, she can explain the dissonance between the texts of the erudite elite and the artifacts of artisans of the Romanesque period, who often followed an oral tradition or who had to comply with the imperatives of local moralizing programs leading to distorted forms. She is keen to put things straight and to draw attention to misunderstandings; in her proposed periodization of attitudes towards monsters, she underlines the errors of specialists of later periods who, ignorant of what happened in the Middle Ages, reach the all too evident conclusion that it is the period of explorations that brought interest in such creatures to the fore. Intrigued by cosmographical representations, such as the illustrations of the waters above the firmament (Gen. 1:6), she again shows how ignorance of the art of earlier periods (e.g., of Roman mosaics) can easily lead to wrong conclusions. Always fond of challenges, JLM “attacks” inscriptionsaccompanying images, often fragmentary or misspelled, and tries to make sense when they are missing. Signatures too can be tricky; to whom do they belong? Do they belong to the master-founder--held in high esteem in the Romanesque period--to the artisan, or to the donor? The words accompanying them are important, as is their exact position: are they situated inside the field of the image or outside the border? One should be cautious and not jump too easily to conclusions. To put it briefly, JLM is attracted by all things problematical, by whatever seems out of place, by anything that requires scrutiny; she calls them, humbly, “quelques petites questions” (45), only they demand a whole lifetime of research to be solved.

In the end, what can be seen as her “marque de fabrique” (13) is her common-sense approach. In her study, for instance, of the illustrations of the ancient Greek gods in the Chronique de Hainaut, while taking duly into account Michael Camille’s seminal reading, she draws attention to the manifest pleasure these images were meant to convey even just by the choice of colors, so obvious to anyone who encounters these images without any preconceptions, and which makes them participate “déjà pleinement de l’esprit « Renaissance »” (47), given also that all moral meaning is absent. When she deals with two problematical interpretations of representations of the waters in Gen. 1.6 (see above), she asks the simple question: Why would the waters below the firmament be represented so close to the ceiling? What she asks the viewer to do is first to look attentively: for example, an “atmosphere paisible” (133) can be proof that a monster was not perceived as a menacing figure but as someone familiar.

For those seeking a coherent presentation of the Nachleben of specific monsters, this is not the right book. This publication lies at the antipodes of Michel Pastoureau’s and Clara Frugoni’s publications, where one finds distilled the knowledge of a whole period without the noise the unica create, books which have contributed so much to making the Middle Ages attractive to a wider readership. At the same time, it would be a pity to see this Festschrift just lying on the bookshelf of the author’s friends or only of dedicated medieval iconography specialists. It is undoubtedly a work that can be of service to young art historians and to students of cultural studies, as a model of sound methodology in all its aspects: the building of a good structure, recognizing the “state of knowledge” at a given moment, and accepting one’s limits (66), acknowledging that there are things that we will never know or that are risky; choosing the right words and being circumspect (“on est peut-être en droit de se demander si...” [46], “on peut donc raisonnablement penser” [236], “même si l’on ne peut pas exclure” [238]); not being afraid to state one’s certitudes (“On peut en tout cas être sûr que…” [46], “il ne fait aucun doute” [134]); becoming aware that things are not always coherent and thus avoiding the tempting trap of over-interpretation (even in a text from as early in her career as 1975 she refuses to adopt an interpretation that would have recognized in the artists of the twelfth century an understanding that they could not have had); last but not least, presenting the theses of other scholars and adopting an honest, elegant attitude towards fellow scholars, paying one’s debt to precursors. Some of her smaller texts or those with a well-delineated subject-matter are polished gems--such as her paper on the iconography of the winds or her examination of the color of the flesh--and can serve as models of well-structured, clear, and concise academic writing.

On an editing level, it should be mentioned that thanks to the carefully compiled indexes the reader can profit fully from the book. Names of modern authors are given in capital letters in the notes, which greatly facilitates consulting them, while the placing of the notes at the end of each paper is an excellent choice. On the downside, the book is very heavy (it weighs more than 2 kilos); given that the illustrations are separated from the text, the text could have been published on a lighter paper in order to make the book more manageable, and thus more pleasurable to read.