Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 1999
Lawrence Nees, ed. Approaches to Early-Medieval Art Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1998. 257 pp.; 156 b/w ills. Paper $20.00 (0915651092)
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This volume gives an interesting sample, though not a survey, of current scholarship on the art of early medieval Europe. Its editor, Lawrence Nees, has given it shape and balance that clearly reflect his own approach to the material. Nees has long been constructing bridges over the divide between Western “medieval” and “Byzantine” art, an enterprise indebted to the example of Ernst Kitzinger, to whom this book is dedicated. Geographical boundaries are facts of American academic life, both in the courses we teach and in the conferences we attend (usually either the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo or the Byzantine Studies Conference, but not both). Nees’s From Justinian to Charlemagne, European Art 565–787: An Annotated Bibliography (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985) is one of the best tools available to others crossing the border, and in this volume he may provide another. Both Byzantinists and Western medievalists have contributed articles, and all the essays deal with both Eastern and Western evidence, some only in footnotes but some (most notably Cynthia Hahn’s) successfully creating a broad synthesis.

The book’s chronological limits are explicitly stated (though unexplained), “roughly from the sixth to the tenth century” (p. 3). Just as clear are the problems consciously avoided. No new paradigm is offered to replace the shopworn master narratives of barbarian migration and classical revival. And Nees has “quite deliberately refrained from burdening this collection with the albatross of self-proclaimed novelty” (p. 9), preferring to include traditional as well as new approaches. As he rightly notes, we cannot jump directly into pure theory or social history when our material lacks even approximate chronology. We must first do our own ground work, and so, unlike colleagues working in other periods, we cannot abandon descriptive analysis. This is not, then, a showcase of radical new methodology but rather a sampling of some tactics being used in the field, old and new.

Given the chronological restrictions, it is no surprise that the Ottonians are almost totally excluded from this book, as are the Goths and many other early groups. But the definition of boundaries and selection of topics would be the easiest aspects of this volume to criticize. Why, for example, do all essays focus on art in Christian contexts, when some of the most interesting facets of early medieval culture involve non-Judeo-Christian religions and the contests between belief systems? Some answer is provided by Nees’s wish to consider together “the eastern and western parts of a Christendom whose perceived unity vis-à-vis the non-Christian past and present, internal and external, was far more important to contemporaries than the undoubted rivalries within Christendom” (p. 7). Cultures not dominated by Christianity are largely irrelevant to a discussion of such unity, and one might suspect that the omission of “barbarian” art has as much to do with this fact as with Nees’s “reservations about the traditional segregation of this material” (p. 10), now doubly segregated. But no single book can make all desirable arguments about societies as varied and complex as those of the early Middle Ages. So while many questions arise, it is surely more profitable to accept at face value what Nees has done with the limited space at his disposal and to hope that additional collections of essays will make a wider variety of material available to nonspecialist audiences.

In his own introduction Nees tackles head on the problem of ethnogenesis, contributing the important concept of the Old Testament as historiographic model. (pp. 5–6) While art history survey texts continue to discuss tribes and kingdoms, a generation of historians has been examining the gradual formation of ethnic identities among many different early medieval peoples. If Nees’s excellent historiographic summary helps to kill the romanticized “Migration Period” in introductory courses, then he will have performed a great service to the discipline of art history. The first two articles, Anthony Cutler, “The Right Hand’s Cunning: Craftsmanship and the Demand for Art in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,” and Michael Ryan, “The Derrynaflan Hoard and Early Irish Art,” both focus on craft. Cutler generalizes beyond his major work on ivory production, expanding into the realms of metalwork, stone sculpture, and architecture. In the first of several planned essays, he discusses viewers’ assumptions (by means of Latin and Greek terminology, ekphrasis, and unfinished objects), workshop structure and practices (obtaining materials, division of labor), and the methodology of technological assessment. Ryan’s essay is much more narrowly focused on a hoard of eighth- and ninth-century Irish church plate that he himself has extensively published. In addition to conveniently summarizing earlier scholarship, Ryan discusses the connections between the Derrynaflan objects and both Insular artistic traditions and the broader currents of contemporary Christian iconography. His detailed technical analysis shows that the paten was a luxury work used primarily for display rather than for other liturgical functions.
Charles Barber, in “The Truth in Painting: Iconoclasm and Identity in Early-Medieval Art,” provides the most overtly theoretical article in the book. His title echoes one of Jacques Derrida (The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987]), to whose reading of Heidegger he acknowledges a major debt. (p. 70, n. 33) Based on a mosaic pavement from the Na’aran synagogue and a seventh-century Christian text by Leontios of Neapolis, he argues that iconoclasm and the use of Hebrew script were mechanisms for Jewish resistance and self-differentiation from the perceived materialism of Christian communities. Henry Maguire, in “Magic and Money in the Early Middle Ages,” argues that actual and simulated Roman coins used in Early Byzantine, Middle Byzantine, and Carolingian art had an apotropaic purpose. The suggestion that recognizably Roman imagery had special power is an important addition to the discussion of early medieval amulets. To Maguire’s study should be added the nearer precedents for Carolingian usage in the pierced-coin amulets from numerous Merovingian female burials, ninth-century portrait coins that may have been intermediaries between Roman issues and simulated Carolingian coins (or may indeed be the intended referents for the painted versions), and the discussion of some of the same images in Susan Solway, “Ancient Numismatics and Medieval Art” (PhD. diss., Northwestern University, 1981).

Celia Chazelle, in “Archbishops Ebo and Hincmar of Reims and the Utrecht Psalter,” argues that a church council image in the Carolingian manuscript reflects interest in the orthodoxy and prerogatives of archbishops. Basing her discussion on a nuanced reading of contemporary texts, she links this interest to Hincmar and redates the codex to his time (late 840s–early 850s, rather than the generally accepted term of Ebo, 816–835). Whether or not her conclusions are accepted, Chazelle’s discussion reminds us of our uncertainty in dating even the best-known early medieval objects and of the danger in divorcing such objects from the concerns of the real people who commissioned, made, and used them.

The final two authors, Cynthia Hahn, “Seeing and Believing: The Construction of Sanctity in Early-Medieval Saints’ Shrines,” and Werner Jacobsen, “Saints’ Tombs in Frankish Church Architecture” (trans. William Diebold), take very different looks at the intersection between architecture, liturgy, and the cult of saints. Jacobsen summarizes excavation results from many sites, giving easy access to recent German literature on early medieval church archaeology. After locating saints’ tombs beneath altars or in apses behind them, he relates choices between those options to variant political and liturgical functions. Hahn uses a strongly theoretical approach, though she relegates most overt theory to her footnotes, exploring how such tombs and crypts impinged on the medieval sensorium. Drawing equally on evidence from both Eastern and Western complexes, from hagiography and from pilgrims’ accounts, her ambitious and largely successful argument traces the orchestration of visitors’ responses by means of architectural space and stones, ornament, candles, and the other components of a shrine. With the juxtaposition of Hahn’s and Jacobsen’s articles, Nees is successfully suggesting the great richness of the scholarly symbiosis in current approaches to early medieval art.

This republication of a thematic issue of Speculum is largely unchanged from the October 1997 journal. It includes some corrections and updated notes and omits the substantial number of book reviews that typically follow the articles, along with the list of books received, advertisements, and table of contents for the volume. Thus subscribers to the journal may not feel obliged to purchase the book, but others, particularly art historians who are not medievalists, may well appreciate the reduced bulk of the new format. Since all authors have conscientiously provided the most important and most recent bibliography on their subjects (up to 1996, occasionally to 1997), this volume will provide a useful point of entry for ongoing research.

Genevra Kornbluth
University of Maryland, College Park

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