Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2011
Glyn Davies and Kristin Kennedy Medieval and Renaissance Art: People and Possessions London: V&A Publishing, 2009. 320 pp.; 350 color ills. Cloth $80.00 (9781851775798)
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This sumptuously produced and lavishly illustrated volume celebrates the reopening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries. It is not a traditional catalogue; readers in search of entries on specific objects are referred to the museum’s website. The director’s forward mentions several aims for the book, among them “to provide a stimulating introduction to the material culture of medieval and renaissance Europe” and to stand as a “new and original contribution to the literature on the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” In these ambitious goals, presumably addressing the casual visitor and the specialist respectively, Glyn Davies and Kirsten Kennedy are largely successful.

The structure of the book is equally ambitious. Except for an introductory chapter (“Defining Europe 300–1600,” by Davies) that offers a sweeping historical overview, the volume eschews a chronological emphasis, instead proceeding thematically. As Peta Motture, the galleries’ chief curator, explains in a preface, chapters are presented as linked pairs. Chapters 2 and 3 (“Making a Reputation: Objects, Fame, and Notions of Art,” by Kennedy, and “Makers and Markets,” by Davies) examine “the perception and practice of artistic endeavors”; chapters 4 and 5 (“Using the Past,” by Davies, and “Ornament,” by Kennedy) address “historical and design sources for the conception of artistic objects”; and chapters 6 and 7 (“Devotion and Display,” by Davies, and “Protecting the Body, Portraying the Soul,” by Kennedy) analyze “the role of belief—spiritual and scientific—in shaping the material culture of society” (12).

As this summary may suggest, Davies and Kennedy have worked to organize their material in ways both fresh and logical. In the first pair of essays, the structure is particularly effective. Kennedy’s “Making a Reputation” thoughtfully surveys the shifting ideas about art and artists circulating in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Along the way she takes up such topics as contracts, the role of the patron, artists’ signatures, and hierarchies of materials and techniques. Davies’s “Makers and Markets” is an apt companion piece, focusing on the circumstances of artistic production: the routes through which luxury goods like ivory made their way to European towns, the high degree of sub-contracting and out-sourcing characteristic of the Paris book trade, and the sharp competition among artists. These two essays, and indeed virtually all of those in the volume, are enlivened by frequent passages from primary sources, some familiar to specialists, but many that are not; footnotes reveal that the translations are often the work of the authors themselves.

For the second pair of chapters, “Using the Past” and “Ornament,” the conjunction is perhaps less harmonious, but the two essays nonetheless stand on their own as independent essays, both quite strong. Davies offers a fascinating sketch of the afterlife of antiquity in medieval and Renaissance art. He examines the topics one might expect (the complex attitudes toward the ancient past, specific resonances of artistic appropriations of antiquity, spolia), but also includes a focused look at the Troy story, in particular through a late fifteenth-century tapestry in the Victoria and Albert depicting the arrival of the Amazon queen Penthesilea at the Trojan court. Davies continues with the Renaissance, first discussing Italian humanists and artists as collectors of antiquities, then shifting north to the case of France, and concluding that Renaissance classicizing was nothing new: “the use of the past to express artistic and cultural aims was one of the most important characteristics of the period [300–1600] as a whole” (147).

Kennedy’s chapter on ornament also has much to recommend it. She opens with a discussion of the term and related concepts like embellishment, first considering Cicero, Vitruvius, and Pliny on decorations appropriate to (secular) buildings, then Suger and Durandus on church decoration. She notes, too, the vociferous objections of some clerics to a perceived excess of ornament in churches, such as the oft-cited fulminations of Bernard of Clairveau, while nicely situating Bernard among many other clerics who similarly caution their audiences about the distractions of the visual; Antoninus, quattrocento archbishop of Florence, eerily echoes Bernard (162). Moving to the use of ornament in secular works, Kennedy considers objects as diverse as cutlery, scientific instruments, and manuscripts, and briefly examines personal adornment (the themes here anticipate a later discussion in chapter 7). After discussing a range of other topics, from textiles to the language used to describe specific sorts of ornament, she concludes with probing remarks about the links between ornament, status, and class (182).

The third pair of essays again seems tenuously coupled, but each nevertheless makes interesting reading. Davies’s “Devotion and Display” focuses on Christian beliefs, practices, and patronage, both lay and ecclesiastic. Up to this point, religion has played a surprisingly peripheral role in the volume, and Davies’s comment that “religious belief had a very real effect on many lay people” (193) may strike some readers as an understatement. He opens with pious gift-giving, pausing to note the presence of some odd items in church treasuries, such as one object identified by a document as “part of the tooth of a fish” (195). He also discusses, briefly but compellingly, donors’ strategies to prevent their gifts from being pawned or stolen. (A footnote informs us that Davies is at work on a larger study of the subject.) Other topics include funerary chapels as a locus of both piety and ostentation, the role of churches, relics, and shrines in the construction of civic identity, objects used for private devotion in the home, confraternities, guilds, and processions. Finally, Davies turns to the lavish lives of late medieval and Renaissance cardinals, who owned, among other luxury goods, silver goblets, rock crystal intaglios, and weapons. In objects like these, display surely trumps devotion.

For the most part, Kennedy’s “Protecting the Body, Portraying the Soul” is one of the most absorbing essays in this strong volume. She first considers medieval and Renaissance notions about health and hygiene, some of which strike the reader as remarkably modern: concerns with air quality, recommendations to wash bed linens often, and the use of various devices (flowers, candles, even scented jewelry) to mask odors all find analogues today. She addresses dietary concerns as well, including the medicinal properties ascribed to various foods and the intersections of diet and status. Particularly interesting is the extended discussion of poisons and the ways that medieval and Renaissance elites tried to thwart would-be poisoners. Covered beakers afforded some protection, and materials for cups and dishes were carefully chosen to counteract the effects of a toxic drug: serpentine, considered an antidote to poisons of all sorts, was prized for drinking vessels. Other stones, such as types of jasper, were thought to change their appearance to alert the diner to the presence of poison—thus the jasper handles of several knives in the Victoria and Albert. Chinese porcelain was said to shatter when it came into contact with poison—an expensive form of protection if it worked as expected. Finally, Kennedy shifts gears to consider “portraying the soul”—that is, the belief that physical appearance revealed moral character. This portion of the essay covers ground already well plowed by Ruth Mellinkoff, Debra Strickland, Sara Lipton, and others, though Kennedy makes some pertinent observations that few will have encountered; her brief analysis of the Victoria and Albert’s sixteenth-century statue of Saint Roch (250) is particularly revealing.

The concluding chapter (“People and Possessions,” by Kennedy) is a kind of recapitulation of earlier themes, and at this point the reader notes a bit of repetition setting in. Perhaps in an undertaking so vast, dealing with such a rich array of objects, some duplication is almost unavoidable. To be fair, the authors themselves acknowledge the issue. Thus Kennedy’s discussion of the link between outer appearance and moral character in chapter 7 (248–50), is previewed by remarks in her chapter on ornament (165–66, also derived from Mellinkoff) and earlier, in her chapter 2 (51); but on page 231 she refers readers to the prior discussions.

Following the chapters are short pieces, written by other scholars, usually addressing narrower topics related to the broader themes of the chapters. Though often quite interesting, their placement at times seems somewhat arbitrary. For instance, the short essay on Germanic jewelry by Sonja Marzinzik (74–75) would seem to fit more comfortably after the chapter on ornament than its current placement, after the chapter on objects, fame, and notions of art.

These are minor matters, the requisite quibbles that reviewers feel obligated to mention but that do not detract from the strengths of a book. For the most part, the essays in this volume are illuminating, beautifully written, and accessible. Both the general reader and the scholar will find that time spent with this volume will be well rewarded.

Anne Derbes
Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Hood College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.