Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 27, 2023
Jennifer M. Feltman and Sarah Thompson, eds. The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture London: Routledge, 2019. 344 pp. Cloth $160.00 (9780815396734)

What happens after the initial creative act? In her introduction to The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture, Jennifer Feltman calls attention to the fact that art historical writing since Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects has typically prioritized the time of a work’s creation, and instead situates the case studies included in the edited volume in the time between then and now. The book makes the case that works we now label “medieval” are never exclusively so, as they have been transformed in later years, whether materially, semantically, or both. Overall, the collection of essays looks beyond the initial moments of facture to contribute to a growing body of scholarship that ought to be called “temporal art history.” 

The Long Lives of Medieval Art and Architecture is divided into five thematic sections. The first, “Essence and Continuity,” demonstrates that medieval works often transcend or outlast their original form. In his framing discussion advocating a diachronic approach to the study of buildings, Nicola Camerlenghi evokes “the broader notion of St. Peter’s,” which encompasses both the old and new papal basilicas (19). Elisa A. Foster addresses the Virgin of Le Puy-en-Velay, “whose image changed both before and after its physical destruction” in 1794 (31). Laura Jacobus turns her attention to the image of the Virgin Mary in the annual sacra rappresentazione reenacting the Annunciation in front of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua where, despite important changes in costuming over the period she studies, “the idea of the original becomes expanded, but not lost” (47).

The book’s second section, “Transformation,” shifts gears from continuity to change. Amanda W. Dotseth takes a diachronic approach to St. Quirce in Burgos, overcoming a scarcity of documents—typical of many medieval buildings, particularly smaller ones—to analyze a change in design evident between the east end and the crossing. Charles R. Morscheck draws from an abundance of archival sources to demonstrate that material from Santa Tecla in Milan “outlived” its original context through its incorporation into Milan Cathedral as spolia (83), but also that the demolition of the former represented a real spiritual loss to parishioners (93­4). Kyle G. Sweeney discusses the physical changes to Notre-Dame of Louviers wrought by a natural disaster, and the way subsequent architectural portraits in a variety of media either reflected or obfuscated the reality of the building on the ground. Emily N. Savage analyzes how a French book of hours begun in the fifteenth century and completed in the sixteenth forged “links with the past” (127).

The third part, “Narration,” is about movement, whether from one position to another, as in the case Maeve O’Donnell-Morales examines of the articulated limbs of a devotional statue of the Virgin Mary in Seville Cathedral, or from one place to another, like the Romanesque portal and accompanying wooden doors Nancy Wu traces back to the church of St.-Sulpice in Coulangé, long displayed separately at the Met Cloisters in New York, and previously unidentified and unprovenanced, or the Carrow Psalter, which changed hands several times, as Lynley Anne Herbert recounts, before reaching the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

The fourth section, “Memory and Oblivion,” addresses, most broadly, the use of medieval art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and especially its political instrumentalization, often in the service of nationalism. Imogen Tedbury deploys the concept of “cultural memory” to chart the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Lorenzetti’s frescoes in the chapter house of San Francesco in Siena, their relocation to chapels inside the basilica itself, and the subsequent “drastic intervention, supported by artists associated with Sienese Purismo,” who painted in a neo-medieval mode and associated the medieval period with political freedom (199). Matilde Mateo frames the tenth-century “Victory Cross” from the Oviedo Cathedral treasury as a “memory object” (212). By holding the “shiny but hastily restored” cross aloft in a procession in 1942, Francisco Franco instrumentalized the medieval object to cast himself as a kind of Pelayo, founder of the Kingdom of Asturias (219). William J. Diebold accomplishes with aplomb the tricky task of establishing critical distance in his standout essay, a critical reception history of the Magdeburg Rider in modern Germany. His chapter juxtaposes the statue’s presence (in reproduction) in a major Nazi-era traveling exhibition that opened in 1940 with its notable absence in a landmark West German exhibition in Stuttgart in 1977. 

The fifth and final section, “Restoration,” is about modern efforts to “turn back the clock,” in one way or another, at Benevento Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Chartres Cathedral, and Saint-Denis. Cathleen Hoeniger describes the way the bronze doors of Benevento were pieced back together despite the odds after the Allied bombardment of 1943, and Catherine Emma Walden presents the episcopal tomb of Robert Bingham at Salisbury as a patchwork of the thirteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Rounding out the volume in a pair of essays that ought to be read together: Meredith Cohen interprets the controversial recent restoration of Chartres Cathedral as an act of “creative iconoclasm” (294), and Sarah Thompson presents the project to rebuild the north tower of Saint-Denis as an addition masquerading as a restoration (306).

While there is significant thematic breadth among the essays, it is worth noting that the case studies all emerge from Christian sacred contexts in present-day England, France, Germany, and Spain. The relatively narrow geographic scope makes sense, given the fact that the essays began as conference papers delivered in a group of engrossing sessions sponsored by AVISTA (The Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Technology, Science, and Art) at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, in 2016. And yet, greater religious diversity and the inclusion of secular examples would have enriched the volume.

For example, the absence of even a passing reference to the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, in a book about the longevity of medieval art and architecture loomed large. As the contemporary architect Rafael Moneo pointed out in his essay “The Life of Buildings: The Extensions to the Mosque of Córdoba,” delivered as a lecture in several American and European venues before first appearing in print in 1985, “If the architecture is firmly established, it will stay open to new interventions and these will extend indefinitely the life of the building. The Mosque of Córdoba is perhaps an exceptional example: its characteristics, the formal mechanisms of its composition were so strong that, once they were defined, they set forevermore both the image and the structure of the building, which lasted without being substantially altered by the interventions carried out over time” (Rafael Moneo: Building, Teaching, Writing, eds. Francisco González de Canales and Nicholas Ray, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, 281–82). 

Moreover, while every extant example of medieval art and architecture may be said to have had a long “life,” what about the even greater number of medieval manuscripts, statues, sumptuous objects, and buildings that have not endured, whether by accident or by nefarious design? The Old-New Synagogue in Prague, begun in the thirteenth century, offers a case in point. Carol Krinsky’s chilling observation that the only reason the building, “the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe,” remains standing is because the Nazis intended to use it as a museum “for the promotion of anti-Semitism” illuminates the problem with focusing exclusively on “surviving” examples of medieval art and architecture (Carol Herselle Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning, New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1985, 169). 

The finishing and production values of the book, only some of which were within the editors’ control, leave something to be desired. It seems as if proofreading was largely left up to individual contributors, as typographical errors are distributed unevenly throughout the volume. While the content editing was more thorough, certain lapses—for example, the elision of the concepts of preservation, conservation, and restoration in some chapters, or the absence of quotation marks around terms like “infidel” in another—would make some essays a better fit for teaching purposes than others. Finally, in keeping with the book’s central metaphor, ironically, it seems as if my print copy will have a relatively short “life,” as multiple leaves have already fallen out of the binding, although the availability of an e-book version offers a more durable alternative.

Nevertheless, specialists of European medieval art and architecture and researchers concerned with temporality have much to gain from reflecting upon each chapter in the book, which lives up to its promise as an “extended meditation” (1). The fact that the essays are concise and accessibly written also means that individual case studies may be assigned in upper-level art and architectural history courses at both the advanced undergraduate and graduate levels.   

Lindsay S. Cook
Assistant Teaching Professor of Architectural History, Penn State University