Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2021
Jacqueline E. Jung Eloquent Bodies: Movement, Expression, and the Human Figure in Gothic Sculpture New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. 340 pp.; 211 color ills.; 322 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300214017)

Throughout the entire text of Eloquent Bodies, we encounter Jacqueline E. Jung’s tactile, sensual delight in sculpture and her awareness of the role played by the viewer’s presence in space. Her study fits well with the flourishing world of sensory studies, yet is still deeply invested in the exploration of the cultural production of art. Although she presents a study of objects by analyzing their “presence effects,” Jung retains a deep commitment to their “meaning effects.” Her analysis also brings us into contact with the work of many scholars, including the pioneers who first brought the sculptures to our attention: Aby Warburg, Wilhelm von Bode, Wilhelm Vöge, Heinrich Wölfflin, Wolfgang Braunfels, Erwin Panofsky, Moshe Barasch, Paul Binski, and Willibald Sauerländer.

The illustrations include multiple photographs from different perspectives to allow the reader to experience viewing the sculpture in the round. Jung begins with an analysis of Romanesque sculpture, using the Throne of Wisdom as an example, pointing out that the object was designed to be carried in procession through a city. Multiple points of view would have been available for the spectators, including one from the side where the view of the Christ child perched on Mary’s knees assumes a far more dynamic allure than its static frontal image. The author looks in particular at portal sculpture, where the passage of the viewer was taken for granted, guaranteeing that the sculpture would be seen in different light as one progressed. The chapter is broad and encompassing, including the French Gothic churches of Chartres, Amiens, and Reims as well as the German sites of the cathedrals of Bamberg and Naumburg. Throughout, she addresses the juxtaposition of figures that shift with a spectator’s changing point of view. The pathos of the Last Judgment emerges as a theme that will reoccur, enabling a sharp exploration of the changing visual strategies of a didactic program.

The author dedicates her most comprehensive analyses to the cathedrals of Strasbourg, Bamberg, Magdeburg, and Naumburg. Two of the chapters are devoted to the remarkable program at Strasbourg. The south transept portal presents us with the Dormition of the Virgin on the left and her Coronation in Heaven on the right. In the space below, her funeral procession and Assumption are depicted. Jung’s exploration of these works’ reception across time includes the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and his use of montage “as the principal not only of film and display but also, more broadly, spatiotemporal dynamics of apprehending objects” (64). Included is a critique of the problematic constraints of early art historians working with photographers who endeavored to present the sculptures as self-contained. Illustrations routinely were taken from scaffolding. As a counterpoint, Jung includes an image of the Dormition seen from below, where the intensity of the faces in proximity to each other and to the Virgin achieve much greater impact.

Jung takes into account the whole space, exploring the architecture and the stained glass that illuminate the sculpture and architecture. Her study of Strasbourg’s south transept is particularly rewarding since she offers a meticulous reconstruction of the original setting. Spectators would have had different perceptions according to their angle of view—in front of the main altar or from the southern or western boundaries of the choir. The program of the stained glass contrasts the Old and New Testaments, based on illustrations in Herrad of Hohenbourg’s Hortus deliciarum. The great central pillar of the Last Judgment dominates the space, contributing to a “zone in which past, present, and future times converged” (93). Jung suggests that the sculptors may have had access to Roman-era Jupiter columns similar to those surviving in the Landesmuseums of Mainz and Darmstadt. The columns had similar rows of classical figures, a group of deities, all facing in different directions. Multiple views in the illustrations help the author convey the sensation of a spectator feeling that the figure could actually move and gesture.  

The theme of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is one of the more chronologically extensive of the collection Jung presents. The discussion focuses on empathy, a shift in piety evident in the thirteenth century with the great model of Francis of Assisi bonding so intensely with the suffering Christ that he bore the Savior’s wounds in his own body. She demonstrates how contemporaneous strategies of representing the Last Judgment prioritize viewer engagement—that is, the “embodiment of feelings associated with admittance into or exclusion from the heavenly feast” (133). Here she posits a shift from emblematic to mimetic modes. Her preface to this assertion presents a historical overview (133–52) that one can imagine becoming a valuable separate reading for undergraduates. Tracing the theological and artistic development of the theme over four centuries, Jung includes its manifestation in manuscript, metalwork, and sculpture before her focus on the sculpture at Strasbourg, Magdeburg, Erfurt, Freiburg, Bamberg, and Bern. The reader is drawn into a meticulous exploration of gesture and juxtaposition in the structure of meaning. And as an added bonus, these women modeled fashions of the times, similar to statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga that also speak to the representation of acceptance or rejection.

The great choir screen and west choir chapel at Naumburg may be the site most intellectually accessible to the contemporary visitor. The screen retains its sculptural decoration and a great deal of its original polychrome. No one who enters the choir passing in such physical proximity to the crucified Christ can deny its affective power. The gesture of the Virgin, who points to her son and the twisting body of John, appears representative of all human suffering. Above this icon of meditation appears a sculpted sequence of the Passion. Critics have long commented on the sense of realism and individuality of the sculptures, whether purported portraits or biblical narratives. On the interior of the choir, illuminated by five huge windows, ancestor portraits stand atop the choir stalls. The human figure dominates the spatial and iconographic schema. In the windows, single figures occupy the center of a series of multilobed medallions structuring a hierarchical world: apostles and virtues, saintly deacons and bishops, and the laity represented by men-at-arms and saintly females. The actual flesh of the living participants, the stone of the ancestral presences, and the light-filled bodies of the blessed blend to form the community of the saints. Jung points out reciprocal strategies of representation, possibly by a master designer, such as the dress of the female saints repeated in the donor statues. The magnificent warriors—including Sebastian and Maurice, holding their shields—find their counterparts in Dietmar, Wilhelm, or Tymo. Given the preservation of the monument, including the Marian altar, we can easily imagine thirteenth-century canons moving through these spaces. Jung suggests a sequence of gestures, dress, and facial expressions creating lines of sight, so that we move from an encounter with the Virgin to the face of her tortured son, to the face of a noblewoman (the Countess Gerberg) within the choir.

The author speaks of the construction of community forged among the highly individualized figures. In 1249 Bishop Dietrich II of Wettin referred to eleven past donors whose patronage earned them forgiveness of their sins. She characterizes his statement as a “canny work of advertising . . . the highest officials of the episcopate casting long-dead donors as models extending the promise of perpetual membership in a fashionable fraternity in return for financial assistance” (182). This analysis, especially of images that give every impression of being portraits taken from life, should make us rethink the facile acceptance of donor identifications. The celebrated Margrave couples Hermann and Reglindis and Eckhard II and Uta lived during the first half of the eleventh century. There are no contemporary documents attesting to their roles, only Bishop Dietrich’s later assertion. Such evidence might encourage us to reflect on our tenuous understanding of “donors”—for example, tradespeople in windows of Chartres—simply because they are depicted.

Throughout the text Jung makes tantalizing references to additional sites, including the shrine of Saint Elizabeth at Marburg, Meissen cathedral’s choir and porch, the cathedrals of Léon and Burgos, and the portal of the Chartreuse de Champmol of Dijon. These carefully engineered spaces testify to the massive investment in strategies of display. The rituals surrounding these spaces, however, are now much altered. We may ponder such change in the same way that we read the testament of Henry VII concerning the cloth-of-gold mass vestments he donated to Westminster Abbey “for as long as the world endures.” We are grateful that Jung’s scholarship helps us to relive many aspects of this lost past. And, perhaps, we may be emboldened to call for video essays in our classrooms to explore the multiple points of view gained by a mobile beholder, even in the present.

Virginia C. Raguin
Distinguished Professor of Humanities Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross