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22.06.20 Gertsman, The Absent Image

22.06.20 Gertsman, The Absent Image

Here’s a fun riddle for you: what can only be represented by an absence of representation? That’s the question posed by Elina Gertsman in her stunning bookThe Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books. Content-wise, there’s something for everyone here: historians of medieval art, visual culture, philosophy, theology, science, math, and literature will all close this book having learned something transformative about their subjects. Above all, Gertsman’s work holds an important lesson: that scholars most need to investigate what we regularly, cynically dismiss as unknowable. How many times have empty spaces in manuscripts been shrugged off as mere scribal errors, or run-of-the-mill erasures, or lost or fragmentary images, incapable of study? Gertsman, thank goodness, finds these “absent images” “far from accidental” (23), and instead investigates the “fecundity of emptiness” (4) over four chapters, examining mostly western medieval manuscripts from the 1200s-1500s. This period, she argues, sees an increase in absent images, precisely because of the complicated debates on absence, creation, and imagination that were raging in the medieval universities at the time, due in part to Greco-Arabic sources newly arrived in western Europe.

In chapter one, Gertsman discusses representations in manuscripts of the primordial void, a genre of imagery that was apparently on the upswing in the thirteenth century. How do we depict the ex nihilo from which God’s creation came? Medieval artists came up with a series of sophisticated and inventive answers. Gertsman, for instance, highlights the famous image of God as a creator with a compass from a Bible moralisée (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 1v), arguing that the manuscript in fact begins with a blank recto page, the non-image on 1r that is the inverse of the 1v frontispiece, because it wants to begin with a “space of generation, about to be filled” (21) by God’s creation and the start of biblical time; in this way, it is the manuscript viewer who “effectively sets in motion the creative act of God” (22) by turning the page. Delightfully, Gertsman links this, and other visual manifestations of nihil--empty ruled lines waiting for God’s creative act, or blank parchment that is the presenceof potential--to the new discussion of zero in Latin-speaking Europe. She explains the concern that medieval thinkers had over the foreign, non-western concept of zero, and their resulting explicit connection between zero and (what they saw as) God-less thought among non-Christians. Given the pedigree of the number zero, imported from the Hindu system by Arabic traders, the association of zero with godlessness made sense to medieval thinkers, and, accordingly, Jews in medieval Europe were initially made to wear yellow rings--zeroes--on their clothing. The way that such elite university thought infused such a variety of areas of medieval life never ceases to amaze, and Gertsman’s book is a satisfying exploration of that fact over and over again.

In chapter two, Gertsman explores instances of failed representation in manuscripts: empty spaces inside painted frames. These, she argues, are intentionalstoppages of representation. They are often depictions of what cannot be represented (scenes of lustful bodies or of devilish things, or of death, the unknown “great beyond”). More importantly, they are absences that affected the audience emotionally: they disappoint the viewer’s expectations, or they frustrate or unsettle, or they invite viewers to imagine, recall, or envision the scenes on their own. Gertsman’s phenomenological analysis is especially interesting when she showcases banderoles devoid of words, which ask the reader to actively recall biblical quotations, a premodern fill-in-the-blanks exercise that keeps the audience alert and attentive while looking.

Chapter three is all about erasure. Gertsman acknowledges that erasure could be an act of deletion (because an image is deemed vulgar, or a representation of sin), or a result of the natural wear-and-tear from osculation (as is common in missals). But her most original work in this chapter explores how erasure could be an intentional, positive act as well. How might an erased image of a devil make that devil even more unknown, and therefore even more ghoulish and terrifying? How could erasure become a part of pious contemplation, performed by viewers who chose to efface images of God as they became more advanced in their own devotional ascent into the cloud of unknowing, transcending a need for visual aids and ascending instead into the realms of the spiritual and intellectual, à la Pseudo-Dionysius? Chapter three is an exploration of the fondness for paradox in medieval devotional culture that starts in medieval monastic culture and only intensifies as the Middle Ages wears on. [1]

Gertsman’s final chapter, chapter four, is on holes in manuscript parchment--both openings cut intentionally, as in Jean Poyet’s Thott Hours (Copenhagen, KB, Thott 541), and parchment blemishes incorporated into manuscript pages by artists and/or scribes. Gertsman considers these holes as absences that productively made meaning for the artist and viewer. When made deliberately, manuscript holes ultimately were bridges between different temporal moments in a single manuscript. Holes could frame a single image over the course of hundreds of pages, creating different text/image pairings with each manuscript opening, insisting on new readings of the same image poking through the hole with each subsequent page, and also highlighting a single image throughout the duration of the manuscript, requiring the viewer to really look at that image over and over again in a new frame. Medieval artists used accidental tears in parchment to make meaning as well. An accidental hole could become the letter “O” in “oris,” imitating a mouth, or a geometric figure that played a role in a story’s illustrations, or a mnemonic absence reminding the viewer of a previously-imaged, hole-like wound of Christ. These holes were all ultimately entry points for the viewer into Jesus’s wounds (and heart), material invitations into the experience of devotional feeling. Their circular geometry, Gertsman argues, imitated medieval ideas about the eye (the site of both literal sight and of perceptive vision), and thereby actively invited the viewer to “see through, not just look at” (160) the content being discussed in every codex.

Gertsman ultimately argues that emptiness and absence is a discourse that regularly engaged the medieval imagination, which artists used “to grasp, seize, and anchor the mind[s]” (166) of their viewers in order to more effectively produce meaning for them and stimulate revelation in them. Her study is proof that, when paired with deep, interdisciplinary knowledge of medieval culture, formal analysis can blossom and bear fruitful, deeply original insights about how medieval visual culture worked and what medieval people felt while they engaged with their manuscripts.

Gertsman is explicit that she is not “speak[ing] about the common visual ground for medieval and modern art” (165)--and, indeed, her conclusions are firmly (and impressively) grounded in the late medieval Christian context. Still, especially since her introduction, coda, and chapter inscriptions often tease the reader with more modern examples and quotes, I was slightly disappointed that she didn’t use her ideas to reflect a bit more on her study’s implications for contexts outside of the late medieval European Christian world. I particularly wondered about what absent images might mean outside of the Christian medieval context: is this generative potential that Gertsman has identified in Latin, Christian contexts also present in the mostly aniconic Jewish and Islamic manuscripts of the time, or is this mostly a Christian discourse? Gertsman’s book is absolutely brilliant, a paragon of scholarship to be held up as a model to students and colleagues alike; but there is something greater that is inchoate in these pages, something left unarticulated about how premodern Christians, or perhaps human beings writ large, regardless of time and place, operate. That silence is frustrating; but, given Gertsman’s otherwise poetic and rigorous study, I can’t help wondering if it is an intentional absence--a pregnant silence, filled with generative potential.



1. See, for instance, Catherine Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Constance Bouchard, ‘Every Valley Shall Be Exalted’: The Discourse of Opposites in Twelfth-Century Thought (Ithaca: Cornell, 2002); Caroline Walker Bynum, Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone, 2020).