Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2015
Conrad Rudolph The Mystic Ark: Hugh of Saint Victor, Art, and Thought in the Twelfth Century New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 626 pp.; 29 color ills.; 49 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781107037052)
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The Mystic Ark is not for the faint of heart. The title refers to one of the most dazzling scholarly achievements of the Middle Ages, an astonishing work that emerged from the intense environment of theological debate that marked Paris as the intellectual capital of twelfth-century Europe. Hugh of Saint Victor (ca. 1096–1141) can be credited as the author of this ambitious undertaking, though “author” does not quite reflect the true nature and full extent of Hugh’s work. Unlike his other major projects, such as the better-known De sacramentis christianae fidei, The Mystic Ark was not conceived as a written document. It was instead a monumental painting and a series of lectures, recorded in texts that offer an incomplete but nevertheless staggering reflection of the lost original. Hugh’s image does not survive, but it was clearly a teaching tool of immense complexity and sophistication, meant to be viewed while hearing lectures that activated its visual arguments and communicated a core set of theological truths. Attending Hugh’s lectures as first delivered in front of the painting during the years 1125–30 must have been extraordinary, a point that is readily apparent in a contemporary document also known as The Mystic Ark. This forty-two page source has been cited in the past as a treatise by Hugh, and sometimes as a memory aid or perhaps a work of ekphrasis, but none of these assertions is quite accurate: the text is instead a set of carefully written notes on the image and lectures, composed as a reportatio or a reflection of The Mystic Ark as experienced by one of Hugh’s many avid students.

Conrad Rudolph has written a painstakingly thorough book on this remarkable topic, which includes both a full discussion of The Mystic Ark and also a fresh translation of the text, presented together with art-historical annotations. This marks the first time a modern scholar has used the reportatio and other associated texts to reconstruct The Mystic Ark, working through the picture together with the content of the lectures. The resulting book deserves to be a major landmark, not just for art historians concerned with the twelfth century, but for anyone interested in medieval theology and intellectual history. The subject is notable not only because of Hugh’s position as one of the leading scholars of his age, but also for its sheer ambition. The Mystic Ark was meant to contain “all time, all space, all matter, all human history, and all spiritual striving” (344). It reflects Hugh grappling with a major problem of Christian theology: how to understand, and ultimately to resolve, the great “restlessness of the human heart” that had troubled Augustine himself, and with it to explain the exact nature of the Fall and Redemption of humankind (52). The implications of this topic are brilliantly historicized in the opening chapter of Rudolph’s book, which introduces intellectual life in twelfth-century Paris in terms that will prove accessible for non-specialists, but also engaging and thought-provoking for readers who are already familiar with the world of Hugh, Peter Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Suger of Saint-Denis. Rudolph, whose previous publications have already shed much light on the writings of this prominent circle, makes an excellent case for why Hugh’s Mystic Ark should be studied alongside Bernard’s Apologia and Suger’s De administratione as a fundamental source for understanding the theological and intellectual underpinnings of twelfth-century art.

Rudolph notes that Hugh adapted pictorial types that were deeply familiar to medieval viewers, and especially to the intellectual elite of twelfth-century Paris (113). Perhaps this is why the reconstructed image of The Mystic Ark will seem oddly familiar to art historians, despite its obvious novelty. It shows Christ, flanked by two seraphim, holding a giant circle in the manner of a mappa mundi. This disc contains something more akin to a diagram than a map, a series of images and inscriptions that unfold through nested geometric figures and lock together in an intricate intellectual puzzle. Familiar motifs, such as the Tree of Jesse and the signs of the Zodiac, are brought together in a veritable compendium of medieval iconography. Rudolph deserves enormous credit for this compelling reconstruction, which demonstrates the essential point that The Mystic Ark was intended from the outset to be reproducible, probably repainted on cloister walls, and that Hugh’s lectures were almost certainly repeated by others.

As Rudolph himself admits at the outset, The Mystic Ark is “an image so astonishingly complex that it would be impossible to give a description of it that both is complete and will not try the reader’s patience” (3). With this in mind, it is neither a complaint nor a criticism to say that the heart of the book, the 280-page second chapter that unpacks the picture in detail and situates each of its myriad components within a larger visual and theological context, is tough going. The fundamental task of walking through the labyrinthine contents of The Mystic Ark would simply not be possible without frequent references back and forth to its various pieces, as well as regular rephrasing of themes such as sin and absolution, or prophecy and fulfillment. Each time Rudolph repeats points that were made in other portions of the chapter, connecting a detail to something discussed on another page from another perspective, thoughtful readers might pause to consider what Hugh’s original lectures must have been like: jumping across the image to link different concepts together, reinforcing ideas that were already expressed, and perhaps addressing questions from students as they attempted to track the different issues, major and minor, that were raised by the composition and its multifaceted juxtapositions. The frequent cross-references in Rudolph’s exposition are quite useful for unpacking the countless iconographic flourishes in the image. When reading this chapter from beginning to end, however, one cannot help feeling pity for Hugh’s students, matched with envy at the extraordinary (if overwhelming) training they received from their brilliant master. The larger implications of the image are explored in the third and final chapter of the book, which considers the broad impact of The Mystic Ark on twelfth-century art and thought. This chapter comes as a welcome synthesis of the whole, and makes a clear case for the influential role of The Mystic Ark in the swiftly evolving artistic context of its time. While no medieval images of the painting survive, evidence for its success is readily apparent in the eighty-eight extant manuscripts of the text, and also in the “systematization of knowledge” (365) observed in the sculptural programs of Gothic portals near Paris and beyond.

The fact that The Mystic Ark was a fundamentally visual attempt to represent knowledge raises profound questions concerning the intellectual role of the visual arts in the Middle Ages. As Rudolph demonstrates, Hugh was clearly “thinking iconographically,” with the result that “the composition is conceptual and the conception is envisioned compositionally” (354). The image of The Mystic Ark was no mere illustration; it was the center point of Hugh’s project, and its potential to communicate a complex argument all at once was its core value. In this sense, The Mystic Ark fulfills that essential pedagogical function so often imagined for medieval art, and yet so rarely documented: it was seen by students and teachers standing together, parsing its content in mind-boggling detail, engaging with difficult theological arguments that played out not only through the appearance of individual components, but also through their placement in relation to one another. Nevertheless, the question of what it means to call the painting a “work of art” is still open to debate. That an art-historical method, defined as the study of “the image in its cultural context” (27), is the best way to approach The Mystic Ark is abundantly clear. What is less evident is the extent to which The Mystic Ark can be considered as a part of the culture of artistic self-consciousness and “aesthetic attitudes” championed by Meyer Schapiro. By its very nature, The Mystic Ark challenges definitions of “art”: this was an image meant to be reproduced as a tool for pedagogy, but not meant to endure, nor to be praised for its facture. It was conceived as a platonic ideal, the perfect image of a perfected argument, and it was arguably this conception that mattered more than its physical realization. In this vein, it is difficult to speak of Hugh as an “artist”; he emerges instead as the ultimate concepteur (to borrow the term from Beat Brenk), an intellectual force who drew upon existing iconographies and visualized an argument through pictures, but was still distinct from the artist, the individual tasked with realizing a physical creation of color and line.

The Mystic Ark complicates not only the relationship between ideas and images, but also the delicate problems that come from studying artworks that are lost and reconstructed. With this in mind, the use of the Hortus deliciarum as a stylistic model for the recreation of The Mystic Ark (2, caption to fig. 1; see also 382–85) is poignant, given that the Hortus itself was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian war and is now only known through hand-drawn reproductions published at the end of the nineteenth century. This is a good reminder that such images are distilled echoes of things that cannot be fully recovered. No matter how compelling the reconstruction, it is hard to ignore the absence of the original Mystic Ark when reading Rudolph’s book. It is equally striking, however, that Hugh himself seems to have been indifferent to this very problem in making the first Mystic Ark, and in framing it as something to be reproduced both physically, through painted copies, and intellectually, through human memory. This apparently flies in the face of the current “material turn” in medieval art history, which makes the publication of Rudolph’s Mystic Ark especially timely. It is not only a well-written and thoroughly researched inquiry into the extraordinary scholarly world of the twelfth century, but also a fascinating invitation to reconsider the tensions that exist between the physical and the intellectual work of making pictures.

Shirin Fozi
Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh

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