Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 10, 2006
Meyer Shapiro The Language of Forms: Lectures on Insular Manuscript Art Intro. Jane E. Rosenthal. New York: The Morgan Library and Museum, 2005. 212 pp.; 43 color ills.; 134 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (0875981402)

Meyer Schapiro, eminent mid-twentieth-century scholar of Early Christian, medieval, nineteenth-century, and modern art, gave these six lectures on Insular manuscript illumination in 1968 as the inaugural series of the Franklin Jasper Walls Lectures at the Pierpont Morgan Library. The lectures reflect a segment of Schapiro’s two decades of study on Insular art, most of the results of which were “published” as public lectures in various fora; only three, on specific issues, were sent to press in Schapiro’s lifetime. The impetus to publish the Walls lectures originated with Lillian Schapiro after Schapiro’s death in 1996. The editing process was graciously undertaken by Jane Rosenthal, formerly Schapiro’s student and Columbia professor emerita, who organized the transcription of the tapes of Schapiro’s lectures and provided the citations and illustrations to support Schapiro’s references. Rosenthal has altered very little from the original oral presentations: the title of the volume has changed from Schapiro’s original Early Medieval Book Art to The Language of Form, the term “Insular” has been substituted for the outdated “Hiberno-Saxon,” and a few words of clarification have been added to direct readers who lack the guidance of Schapiro’s pointer in following his excurses on visual form. Notation is sparse, but this assists to a degree in preserving the orality of the original performance. Otherwise the lectures are as originally delivered, allowing the reader to approach to a degree the experience of hearing Schapiro lecture at the Morgan almost forty years ago. And it certainly is a vivid experience: Schapiro’s words leap off the page, demonstrating both his exuberant enthusiasm for the art of the Insular world and his command of evocative description.

The lectures unfold in an intentionally revelatory order. The first three concern themselves with visual structures in Insular manuscript art: the care and deliberateness in the deployment of individual elements, notably variable detail, complex structure at varying levels of scale, organic structure, and surface form; and the combination of these elements into larger compositions, with particular attention to field-frame and figure-ground relations and coordinate/discoordinate systems of order. The next two concern the parallels between these phenomena in Insular illumination and analogous forms and structures in classical and Late Antique art. The final lecture constitutes a paean to the originality of Insular manuscript artist-scribes, discovered in their incorporation of design elements from the preexisting metalwork of the British Isles, in their rethinking of the art of writing, in their careful blending and thoughtful reinterpretation of multiple streams of iconographic and compositional models imported from the Mediterranean heartland of the church, and in the integration into their work of their own experiences, both as communities and as individuals.

Schapiro opens by declaring that he will not be addressing the usual concerns of scholars working on Insular manuscripts in his day: authorship, localization, and dating. Instead his intention in these lectures will be to defend the aesthetic sophistication of Insular art against charges of anticlassical barbarism. He initially names John Ruskin as primary spokesman for the latter viewpoint, but it eventually emerges, and readers of Rosenthal’s introduction will already know, that the actual focus of Schapiro’s argument is a more recent publication, François Masai’s polemical Essai sur les origines de la miniature dite Irlandaise (Brussels/Antwerp: Erasme, 1947), which Schapiro had reviewed in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (37 (1950): 134–8). Masai had interpreted the Insular world, in contrast to the Mediterranean classical milieu, as pre-urban and pre-commercial, and producing an art that was consequently abstract and irrational. Schapiro’s aim in these lectures was to controvert Masai’s viewpoint by the deployment of two strategies. The first is his simultaneously systematic and laudatory examination of Insular art, its parallels in classical aesthetic expression, and its deeply rooted originality; Schapiro sets out to demonstrate that the structural language of Insular art is not only rational, complex, and sophisticated but also that it deploys many of the same visual strategies as the arts of the classical and Late Antique Roman world and its heirs, without sacrificing artistic originality or cultural independence.

Schapiro’s second stratagem draws, with less consistent success, on his dual interest as a scholar; as medievalist and modernist, he sees in the abstract forms of Insular art a close parallel for mid-twentieth-century modern art, with its emphasis on surface, pattern, and mark, and on the heroic self-expression of the artist. Schapiro suggests that Insular monastic artists found ways to express not only the vibrant and tumultuous energy of their faith but also, in the margins, the line-ends, and even in the fill of some of the major initials, the artists’ personal concerns. At times his reading of what is expressed is a reflection of the documented concerns of the period: an evocation of admiration and wonder at both the supreme craftsmanship of the artist and the uniqueness and artifice of the object itself, both as artwork and as spiritual and liturgical focus.

Elsewhere, Schapiro hears more idiosyncratic voices in these images. He suggests that the artists here treated religious subjects with irony, parody, and playful allusion, a real possibility which cannot, however, be demonstrated on the basis of comparisons to Gothic marginalia. Schapiro also argues that these pages express the individual sexual anxieties of their makers under the constraints of monastic celibacy and their resistance to the physical and mental torments of what Schapiro read as a brutally repressive environment. Whatever the struggles of spirit and flesh or anxieties about damnation of individual scribes and artists, Schapiro’s characterization of the Insular monastery is not borne out by historical documentation, nor does a ceremonial gospel book, intended as a liturgical focus for an entire community for generations and in some cases associated as a relic with a founder saint, seem a likely venue to express resistance to perceived or actual repression by that community. Schapiro also notes variations in level of visual acuity and originality, for him the primary criteria of excellence, among Insular illuminators; in his view some illuminators and their books are clearly more worthy of art-historical attention than others. In these arguments, as much as in the author’s essentialist desire to identify and reveal a unique and unifying core of Insular artistic expression, these essays are very much a product of their time, although also very much an important step in the development of the study of Insular art in their insistence on close reading of the structures of visual form.

Other aspects of method here are also, not unexpectedly, dated. Schapiro casts a wide net for comparisons, often jumping across vast chronological gaps and geographic distances without considering the question of missing links. Although Schapiro concedes that some of these parallels may be the result of convergence, he frequently implies the direct continuity of particular design elements: for example, from the Battersea (ca. 350–150 BCE) and Witham (ca. 400–300 BCE) shields (both British Museum, London) to the Insular manuscripts, and similarly from the Insular manuscripts of pre-Viking England and Ireland to their eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon successors and even beyond these to Romanesque sculpture in France. Schapiro asserts such continuities without considering the survival, accessibility, or acceptability as models of the earlier objects, or intermediaries like them, in the later periods. Elsewhere he argues much closer connections, as in his suggestion of a direct link between the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 metalwork (British Museum, London) and the Echternach Gospels (Bibliothèque Nationale MS lat. 9389, Paris) on the basis of parallel color schemes. That Insular manuscripts and metalwork share many features is not disputed, but given the rate of probable non-survival in both media, most of today’s historians of Insular art would not hypothesize a direct connection between individual objects based on color choices alone. Granted that lecturers often paint with a broader brush than do writers, but academics planning to assign to their classes parts or all of this volume for its evocative stress on the visual or its historiographic value may wish to consider examining some of these methodological issues with their students.

Schapiro’s observations consistently demonstrate the fallacies of Masai’s assessment of Insular art as irrational, but by 1968 it no longer needed such a vigorous defense. Schapiro’s lectures date to a highly productive phase in the historiography of Insular art: the two decades leading up to and including their initial delivery also saw the publication of Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: A Provisional Guide (London: British Museum, 1947, revised 1956), Françoise Henry’s Irish Art of the Early Christian Period (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965) and her Irish Art during the Viking Invasions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), H. M. Taylor and Joan Taylor’s Anglo-Saxon Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), and Harold G. Leask’s Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, 3 vols. (Dundalk, Ireland: Dundalgan Press, 1955–60), among others. In the same decades, art historians including Carl Nordenfalk, Otto-Karl Werckmeister, David Wright, Peter Meyer, and Victor Elbern, as well as paleographers and codicologists, had been turning increasingly focused spotlights on Insular manuscripts. Masai’s generic dismissal of Insular culture had, in any case, never been taken entirely at face value by specialists, but his concomitant assertion that all that was worthwhile in Insular art was Northumbrian rather than Irish in origin had perhaps fallen on more sympathetic ears. This deeply problematic conceptualization, initially argued by A. W. Clapham in 1934 (“Notes on the Origin of Hiberno-Saxon Art,” Antiquity 8, no. 29, 43–57), had adherents both before and after Masai’s more radical restatement; Schapiro was among the first, initially in his 1950 Gazette des Beaux-Arts review of Masai’s volume and more fully in these lectures, to controvert the inherent prejudices in this view by seeing the Insular world as a “complex of cultures” responding creatively rather than mimetically to Mediterranean models. In this viewpoint, as in much else, his work set the stage for a great deal that has been published since, although not all of it by those who would have been in New York to hear Schapiro lecture at the Morgan. Nonetheless, as an area of specialization among art historians in the United States, Insular studies enjoyed something of a population explosion in the early 1970s, and many who participated in that moment owe much to Schapiro’s carrying the news of the historical value and visual splendors of this art to a New York audience of art historians and their students.

Carol Neuman de Vegvar
Professor, Fine Arts Department, Ohio Wesleyan University

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