Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 6, 2022
Elina Gertsman The Absent Image: Lacunae in Medieval Books University Park: Penn State University Press, 2021. 256 pp.; 58 color ills.; 62 b/w ills. Hardcover $124.95 (9780271087849)

How can one represent the unrepresentable? This question has been at the center of numerous artistic debates in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, parallel to philosophical and semiotic discourses on memory and loss, gaps and erasures, voids and material traces that remain. Reflections on absence and the essence of nothing have enormous creative potential—a fact long recognized in modern and contemporary art—but, as Elina Gertsman argues in her book on lacunae in medieval books, are rarely made fruitful and systematically studied in medieval art. Gertsman aims to challenge the conventional notion of the horror vacui of Gothic decorative art, an idea that she recalls can be traced back to debates about ornament in the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement. Where Ruskin saw “the rude love of decorative accumulation” (1), she wants to explore in Gothic and late Gothic illuminated manuscripts concepts of the void, the vacuum, and zero, which were hotly debated by contemporary scholars and theologians from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. 

The first chapter, “Imaginary Realms,” looks at the various approaches to imagining God’s creation of the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. The starting point of Gertsman’s explorations into these medieval voids is a late thirteenth-century illuminated I[n principio]-initial that marks the beginning of Genesis in a Bible from the Cistercian monastery of Kaisheim (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 28169, fol. 5r). It serves as a prime example of a deliberate strategy to represent the original nothingness by leaving a blank space of undecorated and uninked parchment. While most scholars interpreted the void in the medallion immediately below the divine Creator as unfinished, Gertsman attributes to it the potentiality of imagining all out of nothing, the very first step in the process of creation.

She compares its blank parchment to the recto of the folio that shows on its verso the famous compass-holding Creator in the Vienna Bible moralisée (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Vindobonensis 2554, fol. 1r)—a completely blank page with the shadowy figure of God shining through from its verso side, an effect with parallels in much earlier Gospel openings (David Ganz, in Klappeffekte [Reimer, 2016], 78–82). According to Gertsman’s argument, the blank sets in motion the process of creation in the mind of the viewer who is about to turn this first page of the manuscript. Surprisingly, this dynamic of the unseen as a creative impulse for the projections of the viewer’s mind, a central argument throughout Gertsman’s book, is not further considered in the material setting of the Kaisheim I[n principio]-initial. At an unknown time, it was covered by a protective curtain that required the viewer to lift it before the empty first medallion could be seen. A look at the opening layout reveals that there is another empty space not mentioned in Gertsman’s analysis. The prologue page to the left of the initial ends with twenty-one blank lines following the inscription: “Explicit prologus. Incipit liber Genesis—Here the prologue ends. The Book of Genesis begins”: Biblia Veteris Testamenti (Pars I: Libri historiales), Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Clm 28169, fol. 4v-5r, Kaisheim, second half of the thirteenth century (artwork in the public domain)

What is the relationship between such layout gaps and the spaces left empty for images or projections of the viewer’s mind? Gertsman deals with this challenging question, which previous scholarship mostly considered from the perspective of narrative images, in her second chapter. It follows an extensive discussion spanning several disciplines that connects the theological debates about the divine “creatio ex nihilo” at the University of Paris in the thirteenth century to the contemporary introduction of the Arabic numeral zero and its imaginary potential. For Gertsman the potentiality of zero is key for her understanding of the medieval scientific discussions of seeing and remembering and the role that phantasia or cogitatio, the faculty of imagination, played in them. She ascribes to it the creative power that enabled the medieval viewer to fill in voids and gaps with images.

In chapter 2, “Phantoms of Emptiness,” two key examples illustrate her broad definition, in which “absence can suggest and engender presence” (38). Emptiness can be caused by layout necessities or incongruities—as is likely the case in the fourteenth-century illuminated encyclopedia Omne bonum (British Library, London, Royal 6 E VI), in which several pre-drawn rectangles for the images of the prefatory biblical cycle were left blank. Alternatively, it may have been a deliberately chosen pictorial strategy. This is suggested by two empty framed rectangles in Pierre Remiet’s (?) cycle of images interpreting Eustache Deschamps’s poem Le double lay de la fragilité humaine, itself a paraphrase of Lotario dei Segni’s theological treatise De miseria condicionis humane (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, fr. 20029, fol. 7v). There the blank spaces of parchment that stand above and below dei Segni’s warning about the three vices “contracted from the corrupt flesh” are interpreted as exposed naked skin, which, in its nakedness and emptiness, represents the potentiality of the sinful carnal temptation explained by the Latin and French text of the manuscript (56). For Gertsman the difference between the intentional and the production-induced blankness of these empty framed rectangles is “from the point of view of reception . . . incidental: in both manuscripts these visual lacunae are not so much reductive as productive in terms of fourteenth-century practices of viewing that demand to have empty spaces inhabited by appropriate imagines” (44).

In this sense the third chapter, “Traces of Touch,” analyzes the erasure of images, their effacement into signs of a former presence not as reductive but rather as highly productive.  Reflecting on recent literature by book historians such as Kathryn Rudy, who have reconstructed the handling of manuscripts by studying the traces left by adoring fingers and kissing lips, Gertsman turns to devotional images of God thus defaced. She suggests that this effacement is “at once a mask and an unmasking, the beholder’s own lips effecting a slow transformation from the revealed, incarnated Deus manifestus to, on the one hand, Deus absconditus—the hidden and disguised God—and, on the other, the unknowable and invisible God as nothingness, approachable only through the unmaking of the image” (95). By this she underscores the creative potential of apophatic (negative) theology. The concept, explored by, among others, Thomas Lentes in Ästhetik des Unsichtbaren (Reimer, 2004) and most recently by Jeffrey Hamburger in Color in Cusanus (Hiersemann, 2021), is applied by Gertsman to various examples of defaced and absent images from late Gothic devotional books, in some cases, however, without any proven connection of their users or commissioners to such theological reasoning.

The final chapter, “Penetrating the Parchment,” is devoted to parchment holes, accidental remnants of the production process as well as intentionally cut holes. The destructive potential of such cuttings is again read against the grain. Holes can be innovative frames for ornament, opening up the possibility of seeing through the parchment of a page or even multiple pages, a possibility closely linked to time by creating shortcuts through the regular sequence of the stacked manuscript leaves. This is the case with two unique manuscripts produced by the late fifteenth-century Touronian illuminator Jean Poyet, the Thott Hours (Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Thott 541) and the Petau Hours (private collection). Gertsman links their sophisticated construction to late Gothic images of the wound of Christ represented by a slit in the parchment or paper, a topic already well researched by historians of late medieval art. In this vein the diamond-shaped holes in the Thott Hours are interpreted as a means of visually penetrating the “body-parchment” (149) of the Word made flesh (following the reading of parchment as skin). A comparison missing is the painted holes on parchment recently studied by Helga Lutz in her media history of manuscript surfaces (in Das Wissen der Oberfläche: Epistemologie des Horizontalen und Strategien der Benachbarung, ed. Christina Lechtermann [Diaphanes, 2015], 107–24). Although the wound is not a central focus here, the trompe-l’oeil depiction of the “mixed zone” of overlaid and transparent surfaces could have bolstered Gertsman’s compelling arguments about vision.

In Gertsman’s study such gaps are filled by the great rhetorical force with which she presents her overall narrative. In “long looks and sideways glances,” emptiness is shown as paradoxical surface matter at the edges of perception, where theology and Seinfeld may overlap (161). The book is amusing and thought-provoking in the best sense, and the lavish illustrations create much food for thought, not out of nothing but from a wealth of varied examples. It is to be hoped that some questions only hinted at between written lines and images or in notes (such as the missing note 11 in the coda) will be explored through further study: for example, the relationship between blank and lavishly ornamented spaces in the development of medieval page layout and the “ontological” as well as production-related status of parchment ground in this development; holes and parchment repairs such as parchment stitching; erasure and idolatry, rethinking Michael Camille (Gertsman cites no examples of erasures in the interreligious debates over legitimate or illegitimate images); later fill-ins of unfinished blank spaces left empty for images (such as, most prominently, in the Ottheinrich Bible); and the relationship of medieval art to theories of abstraction, a promising field on which Gertsman is currently working. It is certain that from Gertsman’s book and such further studies will emerge a very different picture of the readily imputed horror vacui of Gothic art, in which lacunae and voids play an essential role and where the gap between exploring modernity and the surface media of apophatic theology is shrinking.

Thomas Rainer
Institute of Art History, University of Zurich