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23.04.08 Ackley/Wearing (eds.), Illuminating Metalwork

23.04.08 Ackley/Wearing (eds.), Illuminating Metalwork

The intersections between artists working in different media, especially the dialogue between two- and three-dimensional objects, have increasingly been the subject of art historical inquiry. Scholars of the Middle Ages have recently explored the significance of the intermediality of altarpieces, relics and reliquaries, and paintings. Illuminated manuscripts, by definition, were another site for multi- and cross-medial exchange in their widespread use of metallic pigments. This volume, edited by Joseph Salvatore Ackley and Shannon L. Wearing, examines the multifaceted relationships of metalworking and manuscripts throughout the medieval period, with a focus on Europe. Authors analyze both the use of metal in decoration of manuscripts as well as the representation of metalwork on the page. Comprising an introduction and fourteen essays, the book is organized into five overarching themes, which consider intermedial exchanges in terms of technique, representation, material translation, treasuries, and devotion. Together, the chapters invite readers to reevaluate metalwork and manuscripts in conversation with one another, offering a fuller understanding of art’s making and meaning in the Middle Ages.

The editors’ extended introduction lays the conceptual framework of the text, addressing additional threads that reappear throughout the volume. The authors call attention to the materiality of these precious books, richly decorated in gold and silver. Moreover, the books are intermedial, in their reference to metalwork through the deployment of metal paint. Representations of specific examples of metalworking, of “object portraits” (22), that medieval readers might know or understand in three dimensions, underline the exchange between different types of artistic production. Such images speak to the tension between presence and reference and between illusion and depiction. The shining of metals on the page formed a key aspect of the reading experience, especially when understood in the context of visuality and devotion in the Middle Ages. The authors of the chapters nod to these themes, obliquely and overtly, in their studies of specific manuscripts and moments of reception.

In the next part, Nancy K. Turner considers the technical aspects of production and how such manuscripts were made over time. She analyzes not only the application of gold and silver to the page as paint or leaf, but also the different types of metal used in illuminations: gold, brass, silver, electrum (alloy of gold and silver). The use of these metals changed over time. Situating the methods of creation within cultural contexts, this far-reaching chapter offers critical insight into the meaning of making, presenting an important foundation for scholarship on manuscripts from a material perspective.

Following this discussion, the next section on representation begins with an essay by Brigitte Buettner, which discusses the depictions of Parisian goldsmiths in thirteenth-century manuscripts of the life of Saint Denis. She argues that the representations of labor are a means of understanding the profession through the convergence between illuminators and metalworkers in France. Next, Jacopo Gnisci studies Ethiopian manuscripts from the late thirteenth century to analyze the possibilities of reading gold and yellow manuscript imagery to understand real objects from the period. His contribution highlights how manuscripts can allow for an examination of the use and value of liturgical objects in Solomonic Ethiopia. Roland Betancourt’s contribution to this section assesses an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript on warfare. The author demonstrates that the artist’s choice of various metal pigments accords with the content of the manuscript, providing additional information about the properties and uses of metals. The modulation of metal pigments speaks to the artist’s knowledge of the materials and creates a link between the images and the objects that they depict.

The fourth section brings together essays on the conversion between materials, examining how illuminators transcended the confines of the page and harnessed medieval readers’ visual experiences. First, Beatrice Leal explores metal pigments in ninth-century Abbasid Qur’ans that are used as verse markers, which she relates to jewelry, coins, and seals. The intermedial relations give meaning to these illuminations and are necessary for the effect of the manuscripts. Following, Beth Fischer analyzes Carolingian Gospel books that can function as metal objects. These richly decorated texts correspond to the other kinds of metalwork with which they would be viewed, such as reliquaries and chalices. The metal of the book conferred a haptic potential within the devotional context, enabling the reader to touch even if only visually. Continuing, Heidi C. Gearhart considers the twelfth-century Siegburg Lectionary, arguing that the relationship to arts in other media such as wall painting and enameling allowed the manuscript to encapsulate the aesthetic of varietas. Medieval readers’ perception of the manuscript was enhanced by the correspondences with other kinds of imagery. Finally, Sophia Ronan Rochmes calls attention to gold and grey grisaille illumination in fifteenth-century Flanders, understood as evocation of silverwork, goldwork, and stained glass. Made for the non-nobility, the books nevertheless evoked the tastes of the Burgundian aristocracy, showcasing how aesthetic preferences were modulated for new audiences.

Section Five turns to the treasury, both represented in books and as books. Eliza Garrison reconsiders the eleventh-century Uta Codex in the context of its golden box, which she argues was conceived as integral to its female readers’ reception of the book’s illuminations; together book and box facilitated the women’s imagination of their relationship to Christ. Next, Sasha Gorjeltchan studies a vita of St. Albinus made at the turn of the twelfth century in Angers. The manuscript’s representation of treasury objects and funerary rites connected distinct temporalities of the religious community, creating a link both to history and to the divine. Moving ahead several centuries, Julia Oswald interrogates representations of the arma Christi from Sainte-Chapelle in manuscripts made at the turn of the sixteenth century for the French aristocracy. The illuminations “repackage” (363) the treasury and serve to support French royal claims of power by creating a link to the powerful religious and historical treasury.

In the last section, essays address “phenomenology and piety,” evaluating the religious function and reception of books. Megan H. Foster-Campbell explores paintings of pilgrim badges in the borders of Flemish books of hours made in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The trompe l’oeil badges, which echo the collecting of actual badges in books, allowed readers to take imagined pilgrimages, amplifying the devotional function of the manuscripts. Continuing the investigation of trompe l’oeil imagery, Susan Barahal and Elizabeth Pugliano together examine representations of jewelry in the margins of the sixteenth-century Aussem Hours. These fictive jewels offered the devotee a sensory component to the recitation of prayers. Replicating real precious objects, the images helped to forge a personal connection to the manuscript and encouraged an active religious practice. Finally, Lynley Anne Herbert offers the perspective from museums today, focusing on silver in illuminations. Known even in the Middle Ages for is susceptibility to tarnish, silver exemplifies the difficulty of understanding the original appearance of manuscripts. The present-day muddiness of silver on the page speaks to the limitations of contemporary understanding about the creation and experience of reading in the period.

Together, these essays demonstrate the multivalence of metal on the page, from production to reception, and even in manuscripts’ afterlives today.Illuminating Metalwork is significant in turning readers’ attention to the materiality and meaning of the metal pigments that define manuscript illumination. Although the cultural contexts of the chapters vary, the volume as a whole draws attention to the importance of precious metals in illumination, beyond mere ornamentation. While some of the manuscripts cited have been well researched, others are little known; the case studies of each chapter present theoretical framing and specific examples to understand the larger phenomenon of metalworking and manuscript creation. The edited volume aims to span geographies and time periods; the book’s focus, however, is on the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, especially in France and Germany. The manuscripts examined are almost entirely Christian and religious texts, with the exception of Betancourt’s and Leal’s contributions. Given the length of the present volume, it would be impossible to offer a comprehensive survey of medieval metalwork and manuscripts. Rather, this book can serve as a point of departure for additional research on this intermedial connection; future scholarship can expand the scope of geographies, types of texts, and temporalities. The recurring themes of representation, visual translation, and reading practices provide new avenues for investigation on the intersection of the arts in the Middle Ages. As this volume elucidates, manuscripts and metalwork cannot be considered as isolated media, but rather should be understood as set within a constellation of artistic production and exchange in the Middle Ages.