Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 12, 2018
Michael Gaudio The Bible and the Printed Image in Early Modern England: Little Gidding and the Pursuit of Scriptural Harmony Visual Culture in Early Modernity. New York: Routledge, 2016. 196 pp.; 16 color ills.; 85 b/w ills. Hardcover $128.00 (9781472460462)

In his latest engagement with print culture, Michael Gaudio demonstrates just how productive print culture’s modes of analysis continue to be. Given its rather predictable art-historical title, it may not be immediately evident that this is virtually the first full-length art-historical study of the Bible concordances produced at Little Gidding in England, unusual for deploying a process of collage in which fragments of printed images were reassembled into unconventional and puzzling compositions. As concordances, which usually have the goal of establishing agreement between different parts of the Bible, these volumes, especially in their use of printed images, seem to complicate rather than clarify meaning. Some versions are simpler and rely more on biblical verses and other religious texts, but those given to important patrons, including the extremely lavish volume probably commissioned by Charles II and now in the Royal Collection in Windsor, foreground the image and present increasingly bold compositions. Only recently have the Little Gidding volumes started to receive art-historical attention, but they still remain confounding and something of a curiosity, as they appear in exhibitions with themes as wide-ranging as iconoclasm and the proliferation of religious images in Reformation England.

The production of the fourteen surviving biblical concordances at Little Gidding between 1630 and 1642 was part of an unusual experiment in communal religious life. The large Ferrar family, having moved from London after business failures, established an extended household in the isolated Cambridgeshire location of Little Gidding. Nicholas Ferrar, an ordained deacon, organized the small community, which took up something of a monastic way of life and even aspired to a degree of utopian experimentation. All members, including some outside the family and servants, participated in charitable work for the larger community, in religious observances, and in the education of both men and women.

Ferrar has received some scholarly attention, but Gaudio focuses instead on the activities of the eight daughters of his sister Susanna Collet, for it was these young women who undertook the work on the visual components of the concordances. They worked six days a week in a dedicated room that served as a fully fitted workshop, selecting examples from a large collection of primarily Netherlandish printed images, cutting up certain figures or motifs, and composing the pieces on sheets of paper. The pieces were then glued down, and the sheet was completed by applying red rules to frame both text and images. The sheets were put under pressure in one of the two printing presses held by the family, thus repeating the act of impressing that had given form to the individual prints. The two elder Collet sisters were also responsible for bookbinding, from sewing the binding to covering the volume in leather or velvet and applying decorative tooling and stamps.

The albums produced are indeed remarkable but also enigmatic, and it is this quality that Gaudio confronts in the book’s introduction, in which an early modern print about how to deal with opposing modes of worship is made to speak about the stakes of art-historical interpretation. Gaudio argues that one must recognize when visual materials resist interpretation, as visibility is often interrupted and cannot easily be turned into knowledge. He challenges the notion that England turned from image to word during the Reformation, and given the indeterminacy of both images and social disruption, he opts for an open-ended mode of analysis. In the concordances, the aim might have been to harmonize the diverse gospels, but with the deployment of the printed image, the process was radically interrupted. Instead of textual meaning, Gaudio turns to the process of making and the implications of materials and materiality.  The close attention to the making of the sheets that compose the concordances is one of the strengths of this study, and Gaudio works to bring these material processes into relation with others that are comparable through shared materials and tools. This is about harmonizing but through an entirely different route.

Along the way, Gaudio’s book raises important issues pertaining to print culture. The collection of Netherlandish prints in England has always been at the edges of discussions of the early-modern circulation of images. The author is also attentive to choices that suggest unexpected connections between Catholic and Protestant images, or between England and papal Rome. And then there is the examination of the ways in which users appropriated printed images, in this case not through marginal comments or defacing of the image, but through the complete remaking of the image. As Gaudio points out, the cutting up of prints was not unusual, for instance, in anatomical images that required the user to cut out the body parts and reconstruct them as moving parts. The so-called anatomical fugitive print has many variations, especially in relation to the idea of cutting, penetrating, and unveiling the body. Within the concordances of Little Gidding, however, cutting and reassembling is not about revealing what is hidden, but about focusing on the surface and the forging of pattern that moves things sideways.

This concept emerges with Gaudio’s exploration of the close relation between the concordances and needlework. The medieval traditions that connected manuscripts with needlework are discussed in terms of women’s labor and the association of devotional work to discipline and self-restraint. Needles, scissors, and knives oscillate between weapons and tools that overlap across different practices, recalling the crucial intersection between the weapons of New World communities and the tools of the European printing workshop in Gaudio’s Engraving the Savage: The New World and Techniques of Civilization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008: Gaudio has always excelled at making us think about the materiality of paper, the liquidity of ink, and the vitality of skin, and in this book these skills are applied to build overlapping continuities between needlework and print, and thus between the work of the concordances and the search for harmony.

The surface is crucial because for Gaudio it is a metaphor for thinking. “Surface thinking” serves not simply to unsettle all that is fixed—differences between manuscripts and print, word and image, Protestant and Catholic—but also to keep it somewhat unsettled. Gaudio draws effectively from the notion of patchwork, which was applied to the work of the Collets as early as 1730 by Thomas Hearne, who compiled the surviving documents of the community. For Hearne, the term referred to the effects of juxtaposing prints of different sizes, but for Gaudio, it becomes a metaphor for thinking about the problem of the concordance of printed words that are as discontinuous as patchwork. Considerations of how patchwork straddles fault lines leads from the making of the albums to making as thinking about larger social, religious, and political issues. All issues raised pertain to dissonances in need of harmonizing: Protestant and Catholic, England and Rome, the politics of pre–civil war years, and issues of sovereignty. In effect, these become the sites of fragmentation that the work on the Little Gidding concordances seeks to bring into harmony.

Gaudio is reticent to bring things into full resolution, insisting instead on retaining the fault lines of a project that is heterogeneous and always ambivalent, especially about the ability to interpret the image. One might expect conflict and contestation in relation to images so much a part of ongoing religious and political conflicts, but while the vitality of religious images is asserted, the stakes in these images remain unsettled. This tentative approach to harmony is one that Gaudio shares with the concordances.

Gaudio is less reticent about the ways that print nurtured rather than threatened embodied experience, even while changing it. He argues against the abstractions of print, an important debate that could not be more relevant in relation to the effects of digital technologies. Print taken in its full materiality becomes a means to materialize thought. In printing technologies, words are physical entities that are moved around, and thus can be removed from the printed book and put to other uses. In effect, thinking is considered as a bodily experience, and thus is present in bodily acts, a notion that Gaudio links to the Protestant concept of the incarnation in scripture. These two come together at the end of the book and reconcile religious scripture with bodily practices. The visual image and its manipulation through bodily activities and tools seem to provide the crucial in-between, a different form of reading in which the senses are actively employed. The Bible and the Printed Image in Early Modern England thus offers yet another concept of what reading can be, and makes a contribution to the heterogeneous histories of early-modern reading that are so crucial to the study of print culture.

As for the title of the book, which attempts to locate the study within a broader field of study, it does not do full justice to its unusual topic and its impressive realization. What is distinctive about this book and what prevents it from fitting into traditional categories of knowledge, is precisely what makes it such a productive example of the potential of print culture.

Rose Marie San Juan
Professor in History of Art, University College London

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