Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 22, 2017
Martina Bagnoli, ed. A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe Exh. cat. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2017. 280 pp.; 241 color ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300222951)
A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, October 16, 2016–January 8, 2017.

Reaching beyond sight has become a commonly stated aim of art history. For medievalists, interest in the connections between art and embodied sensation grows logically from the field’s long-standing and rich examination of vision and its particular attention to materiality. This legacy brings with it certain propensities—most notably a bias toward religious objects and the relationships they structure between bodily experience and the apprehension of God. The ambitious A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe expands the scope of that inquiry significantly, joining current interdisciplinary efforts (such as the series of roundtables organized by Éric Palazzo and published by the Éditions du cerf as Les cinq sens au Moyen Âge in 2015) to understand what sensory approaches might offer the study of medieval objects. The catalogue includes essays by art historians Martina Bagnoli, Virginia Brilliant, and Christina Normore, literary scholar Barbara Newman, musicologist Emma Dillon, and professor of medieval philosophy Carla Casagrande. While many of these revisit themes tackled in the authors’ earlier publications, they yield fresh insights when read together.

A Feast for the Senses—the last exhibition to be curated for the Walters by Bagnoli, who is presently the executive director of the Gallerie Estensi in Modena, Italy—brought together about one hundred works to examine the intersection between art and sensory experience in Western Europe between 1100 and 1500, a period in which the understanding of the senses would become more indebted to Aristotle, and their cultivation would flourish in both formal and informal religious practices as well as in secular courtly contexts. Five broadly defined sections structured the show: the sensory world, the senses imagined, a sense of God, a feast for the senses, and body and soul. The first two introduced a wide range of topics, from medieval depictions of the senses to the intellectual and moral discourse of the period around sensation. The middle sections of the exhibition staged sensory encounters with settings, rituals, and select practices in which medieval objects performed (starting with the church and ending with the court), while the last room presented works associated with love games, marriage, and childbirth. Two less explicitly articulated themes offered especially rich opportunities for rumination: sensory combinations in the medieval aesthetic experience and ethical questions about sensory pleasure.

It was a lot for one exhibition. The medieval conception of the senses was neither uniform nor consistent even in this later period, and the materiality of medieval art drew both engagement and resistance. As has been well rehearsed elsewhere, the words of medieval critics, among which Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia (1124) is probably the most quoted by art historians, reveal a persistent and troubled fascination with the sensual attraction of the physical object—one played out not only in the few but oft-cited written responses of theologians to art, but also in the design of medieval objects themselves. Ideals of courtliness and moralizing tales similarly point to the coexistence of an emphasis on sensual splendor alongside temperance and sobriety—a tension tackled here in Christina Normore’s essay “Sensual Wonder at the Medieval Table.”

A Feast for the Senses sought to balance the religious objects (especially figurative ones) that have dominated the scholarly examination of sensory experience in medieval art with the material splendors of the later medieval court, devoting about half the exhibition to each. The display began and ended with evocations of medieval gardens, the show’s sensory metaphor par excellence and one that, because it served the Middle Ages equally as an image of heaven and as a setting for romance, helped underscore the paradoxical connections and parallels between how medieval people connected with each other and with God—“late medieval crossovers” as Barbara Newman first coined it in her 2013 book Medieval Crossover: Reading the Secular against the Sacred, and revisits in her catalogue essay. Indeed this was one of the great strengths of the exhibition at the Walters, that it highlighted emotions, concepts, and performances that bridged medieval experiences in sacred and secular spaces, such as longing, sin, or feasts.

In the choice of objects and their display, the exhibition made an admirable attempt to portray the spaces and performances in which medieval objects operated. By way of example, the middle section, titled “A Sense of God,” opened with an installation of the Walters’s objects that included a monumental crucifix, stained-glass windows with portraits of saints, and missals opened to depictions of liturgical rituals. In the next room visitors saw a central tableau of instruments of the mass, framed along each wall with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s tabernacle of Cherves and the Walters’s painting of a Crucifixion by Naddo Ceccarelli. Subsequent installations interwove distinct sensory tracks. A subsection titled “The Sound of God” was a richly developed assemblage that included two of the show’s highlights, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s small and cacophonous painting of the Glorification of the Virgin by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, and the exquisite miniature cradle for the Christ Child from the Cluny Museum (regrettably, in contrast to the catalogue, the interpretation in the galleries attended exclusively to aural experience here). The next installation examined visionary experience as a multisensory phenomenon, well represented by paintings of the intensely physical visions of the Roman abbess Santa Francesca that Antonio del Massaro da Viterbo created for the Church of Santa Maria Nova in Rome in 1445. Smell made a few appearances. A fifteenth-century censer was to be imagined enveloped in fragrant smoke described symbolically as the prayers of the faithful and representing an “ascent from matter to spirit operated through sensation” (cat. 28). Taste proved more elusive, despite the fact that two major anchor points of the exhibition were the Eucharistic mass and the courtly banquet. Unsurprisingly taste is difficult to concretize in medieval objects. Consumption plays an important but metaphorical role in concepts of knowing, and sweetness is a generic quality of the holy perceived not only through taste, but also through smell. Yet the fact of medieval taste’s elusiveness is interesting in and of itself, and deserves further investigation. Finally, the last grouping, “A Sense of God,” emphasized the tactile, focusing on medieval devotion to the wounds of Christ.

There is value in the effort to immerse the public in medieval environments and practices (staged here with discreet sensory enhancements: recorded ambient sounds from a local garden, the opportunity to handle a rosary, and a chance to sniff myrrh). The exhibition in this way established connections across many genres of medieval sensory experiences, only faltering in that endeavor when it failed to take that last crucial step from material culture to sensation. The section “Body and Soul” was a case in point. It offered a wide-ranging discussion of courtly love, marriage, and procreation, but an oddly generic account of their sensory dimensions. In this instance, closer attention to the connections between looking and love in medieval literature might have created a thicker and more specific sensory context. It could also have prompted a more sensual reading of works such as the birthing tray from the Louvre, which depicts Venus emanating rays of light from her pudendum to the eyes of six heroic lovers.

One significant problem of the immersive approach, though, is that it favors medieval settings over objects as sensory devices. Of course all things were (and are) experienced through the five senses. But how might specific types of objects or media have stimulated medieval senses (as opposed to ours) in ways that others did not? Why? How might that have been affected by the different sensescapes in which these works operated (monastic versus parish or episcopal church; different geographic regions; or rituals that changed with the seasons)? For instance, as Sarah Guérin and Alexa Sand have sought to explain elsewhere, how did medieval owners experience those appealingly haptic and large-scale Gothic ivory sculptures of the Virgin and Child that seem, paradoxically, rarely to have been handled? More importantly, how might individual objects, on their own terms, help us understand the scope and operation of the medieval senses and the affective power of things for medieval audiences?

Such criticisms should not, however, detract from what was a solidly researched and engaging exhibition that examined many important aspects of medieval sensation. Given the current interest in reading medieval objects through a multisensory lens, the links the exhibition forged across religious and secular settings was an especially timely reminder that dividing these realms offers an incomplete picture of the sensory dynamics at work in any given medieval object. The attention to both the qualitative dimensions of medieval sensation and their related stimuli—splendor, magnificence, discipline, among others—is also noteworthy as an alternative to the concept of synesthesia for entering into the medieval world’s full-bodied experience of beauty—including aspects that can be difficult for moderns to comprehend, from the broader domain occupied by the medieval senses as compared to ours to the coexistence of a deliberate cultivation of material excess with the values of temperance and sobriety. 

Jennifer P. Kingsley
Senior Lecturer and Interim Director, Program in Museums and Society, Johns Hopkins University