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23.05.06 Elliott/Heath (eds.), Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer c. 300-1500 CE

23.05.06 Elliott/Heath (eds.), Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer c. 300-1500 CE

Art, Architecture, and the Moving Viewer, c. 300-1500 CE offers the readers a thoughtfully curated series of fifteen essays that explore holistic approaches to medieval spaces as they may have been experienced by contemporaries of various social classes over time. Through the agency of “the moving viewer,” the chapters yoke symbolic readings of spaces, artwork, and architecture in settings ranging from an intimate side chapel to an immense rock-mound mesa. With two exceptions, the authors are art and architectural historians whose chapters make good on their promise to delve into interdisciplinary perspectives in medieval visual cultures, succeeding especially well when it comes to the array of methodological strategies deployed. The geographic framing of the volume is decidedly European, although one chapter is dedicated to the incredibly rich Sigiriya in Sri Lanka and another to Japan’s transcendent Shinto shrines at Ise. As moving involves both space and time, for some authors this involves one viewer moving into or through a building; for others it is innumerable viewers experiencing a site across the centuries. For instance, Philip Jacks’s chronicle of the hemicycle fragment of the Markets of Trajan in Rome (chapter 7) is viewed or imagined by writers and artists from the second century through the sixteenth (and beyond). The chronological range in the book’s title refers to the long and evolving occupation of many sites; the reader will not find a chapter dedicated to late ancient or early Christian works. The volume’s center of gravity is held by studies of Romanesque and Gothic monuments located, with a few exceptions, within medieval art’s traditional geography of northern Europe, Italy, and Christian Spain. That said, given the vast scope encompassed by the Middle Ages--even without the question of the global Middle Ages addressed by the editors in the book’s conclusion--medievalists are sure to find the chapters engaging, stimulating, and revealing. Which chapters spark one’s interest will depend on one’s field, and, unfortunately, there is not enough space in this review to mention every contribution.

Editors Gillian B. Elliott and Anne Heath have organized the collection’s content in ways an interdisciplinary readership will find informative and helpful. In the introduction, one learns that the conceptual gestation of the book was long and multivalent. It had its origins in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar in Rome in 2014, a College Art Association session in 2015, and two sessions at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress in 2018. The editors’ introduction is of immense value as an independent essay for its methodological foundation section alone. It offers a historiographical overview of progressive approaches and methodologies going back to the 1990s along with a bibliography of some seventy key works. In fact, one thread that unites the chapters is their methodological mettle. To mention only two instances, historian Michel Pastoureau’s characterization of medieval program breathes fresh air into reception studies in the first chapter, “Seeing and Not Seeing the Rose Window of Lausanne Cathedral,” by Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz, while Edward Soja’s concept of thirdspace helps tease out degrees of accessibility in Christopher A. Born’s “Change Unchanging: Mediating the Sacred Spaces of Ise Grand Shrines over Time.” It is curious, given the book’s title, that Elliott and Heath mention only the “spatial turn” in the humanities and not the “mobility turn”; they may consider the latter subsumed in the former, or perhaps they feel the field has “turned” quite enough times already. It is a small matter, because nearly every chapter teams up with at least one inspiring methodological guiding light from outside the disciplinary borders of medieval art and architecture, as porous as they now are and should remain. Each author takes the time to introduce a theorist’s work and explain its relevance to the material at hand, making the content equally accessible to scholars who may be new to a particular field as well as to upper-level undergraduates.

Even if the chapters engage primarily with the European chronology and geography of medieval art, they focus on monuments that do not often find themselves in the limelight. Readers will not find chapters on Chartres, Speyer, or Durham cathedrals; instead, one enters Ardagger Abbey (Austria) in Ashley J. Laverock’s chapter and experiences San Pietro al Monte in Civate (northern Lombardy) in Elliott’s. It is not simply a question of bringing lesser-known buildings to the attention of an interested medieval readership, but rather inserting these monuments into new narratives or recovering lines of inquiry that were there all along but neglected. For example, Kelly Thor brings the two churches of the monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla in northern Spain into dialogue with the more famous (and admittedly more dramatic) San Juan de la Peña via an anthropological approach centered on the materiality of rock, earth magic, and pagan cave shrines appropriated by Christian hermits. Or, in the case of the Viking Age site of Old Uppsala in Sweden, Meghan Mattsson McGinnis employs evidence unearthed in archaeological excavations as recently as 2015 in order to guide readers through a richer understanding of a now much expanded site by reconstructing processions that knitted place, dynastic history, and myth together into contemporaneously unfolding narratives.

The degree to which readers will perceive the chapters as holding together as interconnected and integrated building blocks of a single volume will likely depend on their field and what the “moving viewer” denotes to them. As an architectural historian, I have scalar expectations that may be larger and more spatial than those of art historians concerned with the viewing of two-dimensional works. Most readers of this book would already be interested in the meanings medieval observers produced as a result of actions travelling to, between, into, and finally through a building or site. They may also be equipped to entertain versions of embodied viewing, such as traveling with the imagination to times and places of this or other worlds--earthly and heavenly Jerusalems--whether the “site” is grafted onto an actual building (e.g., Laura J. Whatley’s chapter on Winchester Cathedral) or experienced virtually by using a mandala or related form. But, as engaging and learned as the topics of the essays are, in some chapters the moving viewer disappears too soon in order to make room for a rather conventional iconographic analysis of a sculptural or pictorial program. And, while there is much revelatory in Thor’s essay on San Millán de la Cogolla, the moving viewer seems to be present only implicitly as a pilgrim who presumably visited both the upper and lower churches. In Jacks’s chapter, it is the building (the hemicycle of Trajan’s Market), not the viewer, that moves through time, through antiquarian imaginations whose landscapes are ably mapped with the help of the author’s prodigious textual and visual erudition. For some readers, the broadness of the book’s theme--to consider viewers’ experiences of space over time--may be one of its virtues, but this reviewer finds that the book would have benefitted from a more consistent emphasis on the agency of the moving viewer.

The division of the volume into four “lenses” or perspectives, each consisting of three or four chapters, helps readers organize the wide-ranging topics for reflection. The second lens, Topography and Politicizing Space, demonstrates how one strong chapter can pull the others into a larger conceptual orbit. It is worth dwelling for a moment on the excellent chapter by Divya Kumar-Dumas, “Reading Architecture in Landscape: Visitor Reflections at a Mirror Wall (Sigiriya, Sri Lanka),” which develops several of the themes the editors outline in the introduction. While India has many well-known Buddhist and Hindu caves (e.g., Ajanta and Ellora), Sigiriya wears the interdisciplinary crown. Nature established the “foundation” of this site on a 180-meter-high rock-mound, destined for a “palace” in the fifth century CE and later becoming a medieval Buddhist monastery. Constructed landscapes (probably gardens) complete with water features extend to the east and west of the hill. Passing through the lower site, the visitor/pilgrim would begin an arduous climb to the top of the mesa, coming upon former monks’ cave-cells, passing along the once 200-meter-long Mirror Wall, before arriving at the summit. The Mirror Wall is a constructed high parapet, too tall to see over, along a passage, half natural and half built out from the rock wall, and partially sheltered by the cliff overhang. While merely on the path to a destination, this lime-plastered brick wall is where “moving viewer” is in-placed, because it was on the wall’s gleaming surface that individuals inscribed song-poems that captured their rapturous experiences of Sigiriya. As Kumar-Dumas explains, the visitors’ responses, recorded in “textualized patterns of visitation,” are capable of conveying “experiences of this place to once and future visitors, such that each present experience contains many past ones, represented now as a feature of the landscape” (150-151). Of course, few medieval sites come with viewers’ responses recorded in real time, as Sigiriya does, but the author’s thorough anatomization of the monument models evidential pathways by which historians may recover experiences that animated other sites, be they in this particular section of the book or elsewhere in the world. So it is that Kumar-Dumas’s essay heightens the reader’s comprehension of the cave-tombs at San Millán de la Cogolla and recasts the drawn reconstructions of Trajan’s Markets as ecstatic exercises of those imaginations that attempted to connect with the lost brilliance of ancient Rome. Even though Kumar-Dumas’s chapter is one of the two non-European contributions in the book, it centers the content of this “lens.”

The editors could have done more to bring out such connections, thereby endowing the volume with greater cohesion. Few of the authors refer directly, as Susan Leibacher Ward does, to the content of the book’s other chapters. But it is the responsibility of the editors, who possess the global knowledge of the volume, to point out where individual authors might highlight interrelated resonances. Another issue that might have been explored in greater depth is the subject of the total sensory environment. The authors’ approaches to the moving viewer’s understanding of space privilege sight almost exclusively, whereas experience would normally encompass all the senses. The haptic sense of touch is often present, implicitly, in the form movements take, be it walking, crawling, or crouching. But when Kumar-Dumas refers to “song-poems,” it is the readers who need to cue themselves to “hear” human voices. Similarly, Ward mentions the archivolt of censing angels in the south portal of Le Mans Cathedral but not the perfumed air that medieval viewers breathed. These are aspects of experience that might have been developed with greater purpose. Finally, more time might have been taken to curate the images. By and large, the quality of the reproductions is excellent, especially considering the small format of this book for an art history publication, but diagrams whose keys cannot be deciphered, or maps in need of contrast resolution, should have been fine-tuned before going to print.

Overall, and by far, the volume’s editors and chapter authors succeed in bringing provocative discoveries to the global readership of medievalists in art, architectural, and spatial history. It is a collection that supports and extends research into the nuances and details of cultural reception theory and, perhaps further along, into the neurological understanding of medieval environments.