Abstracts: The Long Lives of Medieval Objects, from Big to Small

The Long Lives of Medieval Objects, from Big to Small I: Restoration

Saturday, May 14, 2016
Session 358
Presiding: Jennifer M. Feltman, University of Alabama

Ottocento Interventions at San Francesco, Siena: The Afterlives of the Lorenzetti Frescos

Imogen Tedbury, Courtauld Institute of Art

Scholarly interest in Siena’s San Francesco has long privileged the early history of its buildings, their decoration, and the chapter house frescoes attributed to Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti in particular. Praised by Ghiberti and Vasari but long believed to be destroyed, the remains of the Lorenzetti’s frescoes were rediscovered when the Bishop of Siena moved his seminary to San Francesco in 1853. As the scholar Gaetano Milanesi recorded, a group of citizens came together to fund their restoration, which was intended to ‘bring the frescoes back to life in the best way possible’.

In accordance with Sienese restoration practice, the fresco fragments were cut from the wall a stacco. The three largest fragments were transferred and reinserted into the walls of the Bardini Piccolomini and Piccolomini Tadeschini chapels in the basilica of San Francesco. Several smaller fragments were dispersed on the art market. Thirty years later an ambitious restoration of the entire basilica by Sienese architect Giuseppe Partini evoked an eclectic pseudo-medieval aesthetic, intended to return the church to its ‘primitive form’ and inspire a new ‘cultural memory’ for the Piccolomini family, the congregation of San Francesco, the local contrade and the numerous visitors to the city of Siena. The three largest frescoes remained central to this new reincarnation of San Francesco. These fragments, and the smaller fragments in private and public collections across Europe, continued to act as ciphers between Siena’s medieval past and its nineteenth-century present.

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Crucifixion, San Francesco, Siena (Photo: Imogen Tedbury).

Pietro Lorenzetti, The Crucifixion, San Francesco, Siena (Photo: Imogen Tedbury)

Understanding the Restoration of Chartres Cathedral
Meredith Cohen, UCLA


The Power of Absence: The Missing North Tower of Saint-Denis
Sarah Thompson, Rochester Institute of Technology

The basilica of Saint-Denis has been without its north tower since the mid-nineteenth century, and its absence is clearly understandable as a loss. After a lightning strike to the flèche in 1837, François Debret oversaw repairs, but the appearance of cracks in the masonry below led to orders to dismantle the tower before its weight could further destabilize the façade. There have been periodic calls for the tower’s reconstruction ever since, most recently that of the Comité de parrainage pour le remontage de la flèche de la basilique de Saint-Denis, a group that has gained French media attention for its rebuilding proposal.

While the tower is treated as part of Abbot Suger’s conception (and hence part of the twelfth-century monument that has been lionized as the first manifestation of Gothic and as materializing the power of church and state in France), it was not completed before his death. A north tower existed by 1219, but was severely damaged in a lighting strike that year and rebuilt. Drawings and prints from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show a tower whose lower level matches the south tower, but with a differing elevation and fenestration above and a profile that diverged substantially from that of its partner. Further lightning strikes over the centuries required further intervention. The extensive documentation of the north tower thus records a tower that is not Sugerian in date and likely not substantially medieval in its fabric, though the current reconstruction proposals rely on that nineteenth-century documentation.  The desire to rebuild thus draws from the aspects of Saint-Denis so often overlooked—its long life and ongoing construction, the complexities of its restoration in the nineteenth century—to fuel the concept of a complete Saint-Denis that, while historiographically enshrined, never actually existed.

The Long Lives of Medieval Objects, from Big to Small II: (Re)presentation

Saturday, May 14, 2016
Session 411
Presiding: Sarah Thompson, Rochester Institute of Technology

Resurrecting the Medieval Altar: Iberian Virgins on and off the Altar
Maeve O’Donnell-Morales, Courtauld Institute of Art

The medieval altar was the sum of its constituent parts: furnishings, textiles, lamps, sculptures and liturgical utensils. Upon the altar-table, the juxtaposition and movement of these objects inspired meditation on the (re)animation of life itself. Today’s deconstruction of the altar into parts, each displayed in separate museum vitrines according to media, has meant the loss of the stage upon which the altar’s objects once came to life.

Life on the altar reached its ultimate visual expression when the image of the Virgin on the altar was capable of movement. The Virgen de los Reyes in the royal chapel of Seville cathedral exemplifies this phenomenon through its articulated limbs and in its use of a gear and pulley that enabled full mobility of the head. Readjustments to the head’s posture and constant changes to the sculpture’s dress – made easier by her moveable limbs – brought to life the notion of the Virgin Mother’s presence on the altar.

Innumerable sculptures of virgins that clutter museum vitrines across Spain were also once the main attraction upon a medieval altar. How can we resurrect the medieval altar and its constituent objects within their new museum setting? While digital reconstructions grant access to many medieval monuments, they can fall short of capturing the magic and mysteries of moveable, small-scale objects. A creative and symbiotic partnership between contemporary artists and technology may help us to translate the medieval experience of the altar to today’s museum visitors and, thus, to breathe new life into the altar.

Patronage, Censorship, and Digital Repatriation: Excavating Layers of History in the Carrow Psalter
Lynley Anne Herbert, Walters Art Museum

At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, nearly 1,000 manuscripts whisper stories from the shelves.  One of the most compelling tales is that of the Carrow Psalter (W.34), created in Norwich, England ca. 1260, and remaining in that region for most of its existence.  The Psalter underwent revisions and transformations from the moment of its creation until our modern day, and this paper explores its fascinating life through book archaeology, art historical research, and its modern legacy in a digital format.

From inception, the Carrow Psalter was in a state of flux.  Its creators adjusted the text and art hastily to accommodate a change in patronage before the book was even finished. By the fifteenth century, it belonged to the nuns of the Carrow Priory in Norwich, during which time many of its initials were modified to receive the heraldry of the abbey’s benefactors.  In 1538, when King Henry VIII declared absolute suppression of the cult of Thomas Beckett, the manuscript’s graphic scene of Beckett’s martyrdom was carefully hidden with paper.  The book then passed through the hands of England’s most illustrious collectors including Henry Yates Thompson, who put it up for auction in 1920. The manuscript’s deep roots in Norwich made it an integral part of the community’s heritage and there was a concerted, but unsuccessful, effort to buy it for the city.  In 2012 a full digital surrogate was provided to Norwich, allowing the book to be seen in that city for the first time in living memory.

Carrow Psalter, SS. Catherine and Margaret, W.34, fol. 17v, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Carrow Psalter, SS. Catherine and Margaret, W.34, fol. 17v, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

The Parish Church of Notre-Dame de Louviers and the Production of Meaning in Late Gothic Architecture
Kyle G. Sweeney, Rice University

Completed in 1510, the late Flamboyant south façade and porch of the parish church of Notre-Dame de Louviers represent the culmination of over three centuries of artisanal development and the complete mastery of the Gothic visual vocabulary by late medieval French craftsmen. What have become the defining features of the edifice, however, were the last in a series of dramatic alterations to the church. This paper traces the long life of the parish church while highlighting the major transformation of the south façade, which changed the orientation of the building.

Clearly designed to showcase the richness and complexity of the late Flamboyant Gothic style, the south façade and its accompanying porch helped Louviers create a new identity for its aging thirteenth-century church. Indeed, the combination of sinuous Flamboyant window tracery, tall ogee gables, an openwork balustrade, spiky pinnacles, and countless sculptures nestled in richly-carved nodding niches give the façade and porch a sophisticated and dynamic quality that was unprecedented.

The distinctive late Flamboyant design contributed to a network linking Rouen to Gaillon, the seat of the archbishop’s power and the location of his private summer château, respectively. This “hypergothic highway” featured several prominent architectural landmarks representing early-sixteenth-century ideals of prestige and authority that helped construct a visual argument of power promoting the French king and Georges I d’Amboise, the Archbishop of Rouen, Count of Louviers, cardinal, and minister of the crown. With its late Flamboyant transformation completed, the parish church of Notre-Dame de Louviers became an unmistakable architectural landmark along an episcopal and royal highway unlike anything else in France.

Louviers, Notre-Dame, 1506-1510, south porch (photo: Kyle G. Sweeney)

Louviers, Notre-Dame, 1506-1510, south porch (photo: Kyle G. Sweeney)

The Long Lives of Medieval Objects, from Big to Small III: Reception

Saturday, May 14, 2016
Session 464
Presiding: Jennifer M. Feltman, University of Alabama

The Victory Cross Redux: Politics and Medieval Art in the Aftermath of the Spanish Civil War
Matilde Mateo, Syracuse University

The Victory Cross is a stunning piece of metalwork given by the Asturian King Alfonso III to the cathedral of Oviedo (Spain) in 908. Over the centuries, this cross has suffered damages and subsequent controversial restaurations that question its authenticity and therefore its value as a medieval art work. This paper argues that these alterations have not diminished the agency of this cross as a powerful historical trace and an efficient “place of memory” all through out the centuries, and that as such, it deserves more consideration. In order to illustrate this, the paper focuses on a specific moment in the long life of the Victory Cross, when it was paraded by the dictator Franco in a procession in Oviedo, in 1942. By then, the cross symbolized, in the collective memory of the Spaniards, the origin of the nation, the beginning of the Reconquista, and the intrinsic monarchic and Catholic nature of Spain. All those meanings were activated, appropriated, and transformed by the ritual performance of Franco parading it in that procession. On the one hand the cross helped to legitimize the authority of Franco, a general with no royal ancestry, by inserting him in the Asturian royal dynasty, considered by many as the “founding fathers” of Spain. On the other, its symbolism was modified to include Franco´s ideological agenda, as well as the Civil War and his ascend to power, as historical memories worth of remembrance and commemoration.


The Magdeburger Reiter in Modern Germany
William Diebold, Reed College

This paper examined the rich and varied 20th-century reception of the famous German Gothic equestrian statue known as the Magdeburger Reiter (“Magdeburg Rider) by looking at how the Rider was displayed in three modern German museum exhibitions.

Deutsche Größe (“German Greatness”) was the most important Nazi cultural-historical exhibition, on view in Germany and the territories it occupied from 1940 to 1942.  Surprisingly, Deutsche Größe exhibited the Magdeburg Rider, but not its more famous cousin, the Bamberg Rider.  The Magdeburg statue was preferred because of its perceived special relevance to the German expansion towards the east then taking place.

Because of such use by the Nazis, statues such as the Magdeburg Rider were very much out of favor in post-World-War-II Germany.  This skepticism in part explains the Rider’s surprising absence from the famous 1977 West German exhibition, Die Zeit der Staufer.

The paper concluded by looking at the large Holy Roman Empire exhibition that took place in Magdeburg after the reunification of Germany: Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation (2006).  This was the first exhibition to display the Magdeburg Rider as an original (Deutsche Größe had used only a cast) and it was, surprisingly, criticized for just that point.  The reliance on the original was seen as a “superstitious” attempt to sidestep the ideology of earlier exhibitions such as Deutsche Größe and Die Zeit der Staufer, an indication of just how fraught the display of medieval art is in modern Germany.

The Fate of the Bronze Doors of Benevento Cathedral during and after World War II
Cathleen Hoeniger, Queen’s University

When an American incendiary bomb during World War Two in Italy hit the Romanesque cathedral of Benevento, a fire was sparked. The bronze portals, which featured an expansive Christological narrative, were “melted into a heap”, according to an eye-witness. Although a modern cathedral was built on the site, the bronze doors remained absent for many decades, since restoration was not undertaken until 1990. This paper explores how the understanding of the doors was dramatically altered by the damage and the resulting sense of loss.

Most locals believed the doors were completely lost, some holding that they had been looted by the Germans. Since the damaged panels were hidden from public view until 1981, art historians were either silent due to inadequate knowledge, or repeated the pervasive view that they were irreparable. In contrast, because the rector of Benevento had personally salvaged the fragments from the rubble, he was familiar with their condition. In his role as custodian of the doors, he expressed immense grief over their loss using religious metaphors. However, the Americans who visited the destroyed cathedral as part of their work as Monuments Officers adopted a more practical approach. Notably, Ernest DeWald, who was professor of medieval art at Princeton University, played an important role by documenting the condition of the surviving panels over the course of several months, and thereby furnishing evidence of the initial stages of their preservation.

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