Images Behind the Wall

During the last three decades studies in medieval art have undergone a radical change in direction. “The delight in color and movement, and the expression of feeling that anticipates modern art,” which had been so striking in Meyer Schapiro’s studies in Romanesque sculpture, have vanished. So have other approaches become relics of a bygone culture, for example the neoconservative dream of the “medieval concept of order,” which pervades Otto von Simson’s book on the Gothic cathedral, and the neoplatonic reading of “Early Netherlandish Painting” by which Erwin Panofsky identified “disguised symbolism” in many works of art. Stirred up by historians who asked for an “autre moyen age,” as Jacques Le Goff put it, art historians no longer look back to a fictive wholeness of medieval civilization. They no longer admire late Gothic altar panels as self-sufficient cultural symbols. The study of medieval art in the more conventional sense has become as tedious as collecting stamps, whether it takes the form of the myopic interest in the archaeology of buildings, the “Morellian” classification of forms in painting and sculpture, or the indexing of iconographic motifs. Publications on medieval art are declining in number. Not only does medieval art in general now get less attention than it once did, but medieval topics have become scarcer in college curriculums. How can one then speak, as some now do, of a “new” dawn of the Middle Ages in the study of art history?

Things are not as simple as that. We are not seeing the end of a traditional field, but a promising yet also irritating shift in interest. Medieval images are now understood as the visual instruments of religious experience, prayer and repentance, meditation and vision. As the American scholar Jeffrey Hamburger puts it, medieval works “find their full meaning only as part of an integrated environment.” The exploration of religious images has become the visual complement of the study of texts concerned with medieval spirituality. One could speak here of a turn toward the anthropological in which art history is expanding into a branch of the general histoire des mentalités. The gains and losses of this shift in direction are already numerous. Such lofty subjects as Carolingian and Ottonian manuscripts or Gothic cathedrals have lost some of their former appeal. Humble, even crude objects arouse a new curiosity. One of the early seminal books of this reformed medievalism, James Marrow’s Passion Iconography in Northern Europe, deals to a great extent with German material such as Gothic painting that had been dismissed as provincial by earlier art history.

The new medieval historians are less interested than their predecessors were in the aesthetic refinement or noble qualities in medieval arts and crafts; instead they look for uncontrolled emotional expression and even outspoken ugliness. There is a rising wave of interest in the “margins of medieval art,” in the “image on the edge,” to cite the title of a contentious but brilliant book by the Chicago art historian Michael Camille.[^2 …

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