Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 17, 2022
Deborah Kahn The Politics of Sanctity: Figurative Sculpture at Selles-sur-Cher Turnhout, Belgium and London: Brepols and Harvey Miller, 2020. 272 pp.; 200 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth €125.00 (9781912554362)

The subject of Deborah Kahn’s probing book is the way in which narration in eleventh-century France manifested social and political power in Christian kingdoms—in particular, the outward display of a saint’s life in figurative stone sculpture on one church’s exterior. The outstanding contribution of this book is its close reading of the vita of an obscure saint, Eusice, written by Letaldus of Micy (fl. ca. 990s–1020s) and printed here in Appendix I (with full transcription and facing English translation by Steven Burges with Bailey Benson).

Kahn interprets the sculpted figural reliefs at Selles-sur-Cher through saintly visions and striking anti-Jewish characterizations. Kahn convincingly redates the creation of the relief sculptures to around 1030 CE, over a century earlier than previously thought. This redating upturns many assumptions made by art historians, and yet I argue the book’s most resonating contribution remains its ambition to interweave big picture stories and local actors—specifically, responses to the destruction in Jerusalem of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 1009 CE and the ways artists and masons in Orléans adapted their working methods to new media.

In chapter 1 (“Context”), Kahn’s point of departure are the struggles between the counts of Blois and Anjou, which created a disputed zone in which the church at Selles-sur-Cher became an important locus. Sited in contested land, Kahn situates the church’s construction as a manifestation of power within the rhetoric of the Peace of God (Pax Dei) movement in the early eleventh century. The reading of sources moves to the emergence of ashlar masonry (walls made of evenly sized, tooled rectangular blocks of stone) for the construction of sturdy towers and castles. Along with regular blocks of durable stone, masons produced sculpted relief panels, which Kahn proposes were placed on the exteriors of chapels at Selles-sur-Cher as “an outgrowth of the pageant-like display of relics in the open-air peace processions of the Pax Dei movement” (22). Kahn notes that the method of “telling stories carved on blocks that are anchored in the church walls” (30) also appears at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but is limited in those cases to figurative and historiated capitals.

As such, Kahn demonstrates Selles-sur-Cher to be one of the earliest medieval sites in France with large-scale exterior relief sculpture in stone. The question of why the medium of figural sculpture appears in eleventh century Europe has long been an art historical touchstone of the Romanesque. Although accepting the “revival” model without criticism, Kahn successfully complicates the narrative of the Romanesque by looking closely at the sculptural medium and its affordances, here employed to visualize strategies of heresy and orthodoxy in Orléans. Acknowledging Kahn’s approach is primarily focused on Selles-sur-Cher, I wonder how the arguments might have been extended by engaging contrasting theories that question the emergence of figural sculpture in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (for example, see the books by Robert Maxwell, The Art of Medieval Urbanism (2007) or Thomas E. A. Dale, Pygmalion’s Power (2019).

Chapter 2 (“The Creation of a Saint”) starts from the observation that uncertainty around the dating of the carvings has limited what art historians claim to know about Selles-sur-Cher. Kahn turns to an analysis of the Life and Miracles of Saint Eusice by Letaldus of Micy and a nuanced reading of its political statements and social networks, establishing Letaldus as a key figure among the creators of the church and cult of Saint Eusice. Kahn also adds Béatrix de Mehun (ca. 995–after 1031) married to Geoffrey de Vierzon, lord of Selles, to the circle of actors and inheritors who stood to make statements of faith and claims of jurisdiction. In sum, this chapter triangulates the degrees of involvement and agency between actors like Gauzlin of Fleury (d. 1030), Letaldus, and Béatrix. Tracing such networks involves speculative work, and Kahn’s use of conditional phrases at times leaves the reader on uncertain ground (for example, “the links between the text and the subjects of the frieze dovetail in such a way as to suggest that perhaps Letaldus may himself have had a hand in the subjects that were displayed,” 64).

Kahn’s description of a “cadet branch of the Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire workshop” (42) at Selles implies such groups were organized in hierarchical structures like those of royal houses. This might stem from the argument that the church was erected by a “newly emergent class of patron—the seigneurs châtelains” (65). I wonder how this bears out. The two entities (royal houses and workshops) might both be conceptualized as such, but the assumption seems constrained by paradigms of vassalage and primogeniture. At the same time Kahn points to the active, if not defining, role of Béatrix de Mehun. A focused discussion of individual and group agency in this chapter could just as easily point to other models, for example the analysis of multileveled stages and processes in Therese Martin, “The margin to act: a framework of investigation for women’s (and men’s) medieval art-making” (Journal of Medieval History 42:1, 2016: 1–25).

Chapter 3 (“A Sense of the Celestial: The Church”) offers a detailed study of architecture, including the extent of damage, reconstruction, and refinishing over time—including extensive replacements in the lower sections of the church masonry. It also touches on remnants of polychromy and the reuse of Gallo-Roman lapidary elements as spolia, set in the eastern piers of the chevet. Kahn cites John McNeill’s observation in Romanesque and the Past (Leeds: 2013, 5), arguing that spolia “functioned as markers for pilgrims and processions” (88). The unusual crypt at Selles-sur-Cher further allowed for the visibility of relics, creating a platform for the altar as a “luminous stage” (88).

Chapter 4 (“Affirming Christianity: The Sculpture”) digs into the subjects of the carved narrative reliefs across seven sections, including diagrams which at times stand in for the poorly conserved sections of the frieze. The array of written sources is deeply contextualized to outline subjects like “the wickedness of the Jew,” showing Gog and Magog as monstrous and devouring (135–43). The chapter closes with notably brief discussions of topography and sculpture as apotropaia. Most of the analysis engages exegetical readings of the sculpture and eleventh-century figures like the Benedictine chronicler Raoul Glaber (985–1047) to question how “xenophobia, blame and vilification” function in the narrative reliefs and were rooted in European society (138). Kahn rightly characterizes these themes in sculpture as a prologue to the Crusades. This is a powerful reading and one that should resonate with the historiography around other sculpted objects, yet such comparisons are omitted by Kahn, like the portal at Santa Maria de Ripoll and its images of biblical combat gleaned from the illuminations in the Ripoll Bibles. 

Chapter 5 (“A Culture of Copying”) turns to an analysis of sketchbooks as intermediary objects in sculptural workshops. The sketchbook of Adémar of Chabannes (989–1034) and his method of “selective borrowing” (188) stands out in Kahn’s discussion. Through details and formal analysis, Kahn demonstrates a culture of observation and modeling that has been pointed towards but poorly elaborated in art historical literature on the transformation of visual tropes from two to three dimensions in eleventh-century sculpture. This includes illustrations to classical texts by Hyginus on astronomy and Prudentius on spiritual combat. For Kahn, “notebooks, or some iteration of them, were used to harvest postures, proportions, the angle of limbs, the relationship of figures . . . evidently transcribed without attention to the scene or meaning, sometimes dismantled . . . then re-assembled in different ways to form new scenes” (198). Although beyond the scope of this book, further questions along these lines might take inspiration from approaches to digital media and maker spaces, like Whitney Trettien in Cut/Copy/Paste (2021).

As a scholarly book, this work assumes many things about its readers. It employs technical terms and sometimes opaque formal analysis, supplemented with only a short glossary. Even with this aid to the reader, the potential reach of this important study is limited by the style of its technical writing and its tendency towards metaphorical slippages. For example, the repeated use of the adjective “gilt-edged” to connote class or expense (such as “gilt-edged elite,” 66).

Overall, Kahn offers an interesting model of interpretation for eleventh-century sculpture, deeply contextual as much as it is technical. Its contributions to the questions of polemics and visual strategies, patronage, and sculptor’s working methods will be of interest in many fields, from social and religious history to media studies.

Matthew J. Westerby
Robert H. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art