For decades the rich, dense heritage of medieval and Renaissance Venice has offered historians, art historians, and social scientists an array of subjects and an evolving methodological arsenal for their analysis. Building on the work of previous generations, recent scholars have expanded our understanding of the manner in which a society can use its visual culture to construct a variety of identities: civic, religious, class, familial, and even individual, conveying messages that were normative as well as informational. Yet despite intense activity, monuments such as the thirteenth-century mosaics of San Marco have awaited the application of approaches that reach beyond the essential archaeological, stylistic, and historic analyses provided by such scholars as J. J. Tikkanen and Otto Demus, who identified and refined the relationship between the atrium mosaic program and the Cotton Genesis, a fifth-century manuscript now generally accepted as its essential iconographic and stylistic model. One new area of investigation has been opened by Penny Howell Jolly in her study of the Adam and Eve sequences of the atrium mosaics of San Marco in which she demonstrates that new and important insights are possible when feminist analysis and close reading are applied to monumental medieval images. Some of the pitfalls of these methodologies are evident here as well.
Through visual analysis followed by an extensive reading of recent art-historical, historical, and theological scholarship, Jolly notes numerous instances in which the images of Adam and Eve in this extensive Genesis cycle emphasize negative social and theological conceptions of women and the place of Eve in the story of creation and the history of humanity, producing a cycle that the author characterizes as “a misogynist rewriting of Genesis.” (106-7) In addition, she argues convincingly for a method of close reading in which visual information is given credence even when textual support may not exist. Nevertheless, one of her most important contributions is the coordination of the extensive recent feminist scholarship on Adam and Eve with the visual evidence of the Venetian mosaics. Where I part company with Jolly is on some details of her analysis and on the degree of innovation she ascribes to the mosaicistsor their advisersat San Marco. Indeed, innovation may not be essential to her argument that a message regarding Eve and women in general is present in San Marco’s Genesis cycle.
Jolly attributes significance to an array of elements including poses, gestures, use of color, and costume. While it is not possible to rehearse the many aspects of iconography and composition she addresses, it is useful to evaluate a few motifs. For example, what the author describes as the mosaicists’ decision to draw a physical and theological comparison between a drunken, sleeping Noah and Adam sleeping at the creation of Eve through the similarity of their poses for theological purposes, a more traditional scholar might describe simply as a repetition of a model or figure type, a visual topos used for a sleeping male nude, derived from an antique model.
Other analyses are more problematic. One of the most complex is the depiction of Adam and Eve’s labors following their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Adam works on the right side of the image. Eve sits enthroned to the left with a distaff and spindle, looking back toward Adam. Jolly notes that Eve’s costume has been altered from that in which God had dressed her in an earlier scene. Her costume at San Marco also differs from those she wears in the same scene in other works from the Cotton Genesis recension. Jolly argues that Eve’s elegant clothing at San Marco resembles that of problematic women such as Hagar and Potiphar’s wife, which associates Eve with characteristics such as greed and materialism, and that together all three figures enhance an anti-Islamic message already present in Hagar and Potiphar’s wife. But in the analysis of this scene as in a few others, the author overstates a case for iconographic innovation when she describes Eve’s depiction here as “radically reimagined” (2), citing not only her dress, but also her spindle and distaff, throne, and backward glance toward Adam. But Otto Demus, whose publications she cites extensively, writes that the spindle and distaff may occur in the Cotton Genesis, and Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert Kessler in their study of the Cotton Genesis argue that the motif was present there as a reference to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation and to the connection between the fall of man and the promised salvation. Indeed, the spindle and distaff, the throne, and the backward glance all occur in the Velislaus Bible in Prague, a fourteenth-century Bohemian work, generally thought to depend on an English branch of the Cotton Genesis recension, which suggests that these motifs were not new in the San Marco program as Jolly asserts. Yet evidence that some of the motifs that Jolly cites were already present in the Cotton Genesis would not negate their impact or meaning in Venice. A similar problem arises with the pose of Adam in the scene of the Creation of Eve. He lies to our left on his right side so that Eve emerges from his left side, an aspect of a convincing discussion of meanings of sinister and dexter. But, in fact, such scholars as Demus report that this pose probably resembles what once existed in the Cotton Genesis. And Adam lies in the same position in the Milstatt Genesis, a Central European manuscript dated around 1200, also from the Cotton Genesis recension.
The occasional overemphasis on innovation and overstatement of significance may in part be a result of the mission of the monograph series to which this volume belongs: to provide a short, concise study that can be completed in a single day’s reading and that can be accessible to both scholarly and general audiences. But what the author has provided us is, in fact, a complex visual analysis that includes not only textual evidence, but also the support of scholarly argumentation, and requires at a minimum the demonstration that this visual evidence does not fly in the face of other evidence. Unfortunately, a large amount of comparative visual evidence essential to reading, following, and believing the author’s argument has gone into the endnotes. Indeed, despite the author’s defense of visual information, her observations are most convincing when they are supported by scholarly art-historical evidence, as well as theological and historical parallels. For example, one of her most successful arguments combines her observations on the inscriptions, discussions of sin and judgment, and Demus’s observations on the image of the Judgment of Solomon and the use of the atrium as the site of an ecclesiastical court and its enhanced meaning during the Lenten season.
This is an important book that asserts a central, yet hitherto overlooked aspect of the San Marco Genesis cycle: that in the treatment of the story of Adam and Eve, the mosaics conveyed a misogynist message and carried out a normative social function. Scholars had already identified issues regarding the production of the cycle, its relationship to sources, and the political content of its use of Early Byzantine imagery consistent with other monuments in thirteenth-century Venice. Adding this interpretation makes a strong case for multivalent readings of this and other examples of monumental medieval church decoration, a project the author shares with other scholars. Yet in part, the execution of this argument is undercut by its concise format and the author’s occasionally overstated emphasis on iconographic innovation, which leads to occasional misreadings of other scholars. Nevertheless, Jolly has made a convincing case for the use of visual evidence in the analysis of individual monuments, for feminist methodology, and for the inclusion of issues of social context in the analysis of medieval mural cycles. To acknowledge the retention of elements already present in the Cotton Genesis model rather than assert innovation by the mosaicists or program designer would not weaken the value of these arguments.
Rebecca W. Corrie
Phillips Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Visual Culture, Bates College
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