Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 2, 2009
Corine Schleif, ed. Triangulating Our Vision: Madeline Caviness's Approach to Medieval Art. Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art, no. 1 (2008) 26 color ills.
Jan van Eyck. The Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) (1432). Open state. 350 x 461 cm. Oil on panel. Cathedral of Saint Bavo, Ghent, Belgium.

It is still rare for electronic publications in art history to be reviewed in the same venues as print media, in spite of the fact that more and more scholars are publishing online as a solution to the crisis in academic publishing. It is a crisis that disproportionately affects art history—due to the legalities and expenses involved in reproducing images—and medieval art history even more, as a result of the unimaginative assumptions about the marginality of the Middle Ages to twenty-first century concerns. It is fitting and heartening, therefore, that has begun to note the appearance of significant e-publications, such as the first thematic volume of Different Visions, a new, peer-reviewed, open-access e-journal edited by Rachel Dressler and dedicated to the “intersection of critical theory and medieval visual culture.” The journal’s inaugural issue is entitled “Triangulating Our Vision: Madeline Caviness’s Approach to Medieval Art.” The issue is guest-edited by Corine Schleif, and it draws from a series of five sessions on Caviness’s theory of “triangulation” that Schleif organized with Alyce Jordan for the Forty-first International Congress of Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2006.

Caviness is known for her meticulous, award-winning work on medieval stained glass, and also for her employment of critical theory—particularly feminist and queer theory—to medieval objects. Always erudite, always imaginative, always thought-provoking, and frequently hilarious, Caviness’s theoretical work is widely read; it has, it must be said, garnered some criticism. Her work, like that of the much missed Michael Camille, makes startling juxtapositions that knit together the past and present in unexpected ways. It is playful. It is risky. It is subversive. And it drives some people crazy.

Caviness’s contribution to this collection, entitled “From the Self-Invention of the Whiteman in the Thirteenth Century to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” is representative of her theoretical turn. The illustrations confirm what the title foretells: details of Chartres cathedral and other medieval art objects are being compared to stills from the famous film starring Clint Eastwood, which is enough, unfortunately, to stop many anachronism-fearing scholars from reading further. Certainly Caviness knows that medieval and modern visual models are inextricably bound to their own historical contexts, and yet, she insists, lessons can be drawn from their juxtaposition in order to form a “theoretical understanding of self-representation as a performative that maintains (the claim of) supremacy” (1). She combines her expertise in the techniques and materials of medieval painting with concepts from whiteness studies to trace a development of how European Christians invested imagery with notions of ethnicity and race that allowed them both to differentiate themselves from brown-skinned infidels and to construct gender identities. Her parallel analysis of race in Sergio Leone’s Italo-western film reminds us that “it is often the present that renders the past more relevant” (1).

Caviness is here demonstrating her triangular model of interpretation, in which the object of inquiry is at the apex (for medieval art historians, this is the medieval art object). One side is labeled “historical sources,” the other, “critical theories,” and it all rests on the “present-day historian/viewer/interpreter.” The implications of this deceptively simple chart concerning how responsible investigators can relate to alien historical objects are treated in some detail in introductory material by Charles Nelson, who compares it to analogous literary models and then employs it to elucidate the complex relationship between text and image in manuscripts of the famed Sachsenspiegel, the first book of Saxon customary law. Schleif situates Caviness’s model in a fascinating discussion of the role of conceptual paradigms in art history. She concludes that “unlike any of the previous paradigms, triangulation makes the viewer of the present day its raison d’être” (9). The primacy of the present day, Schleif continues, is meant to show that “the author recognizes that s/he is not the purveyor of timeless facts and eternal truths” (9).

This reminder is helpful in assessing the scholarship that employs Caviness’s model. I take it as a given that the historical record is always incomplete, and that literary, archival, and material remnants usually give voice to the privileged and powerful. Theory is the only way to account for the absences in the record, to recover the voices of the voiceless, and thereby to gain a larger and more accurate picture of the past, as well as to understand how it impinges on present reality. The problem is and always has been in knowing which theory or theories work (or work best). How do you apply them? Furthermore, bringing together history, theory, and material objects is a tall order requiring a mastery of several fields. Like all interdisciplinary endeavors, it risks a certain randomness and dilettantism, and there is the danger of distorting, shallow, or misleading associations that potentially obfuscate rather than illuminate. But, as both Schleif and Caviness herself point out, constructing a masterful account that appears to tie up all the loose ends is not Caviness’s project. Indeed, we’ll never get a broader view unless we stretch out our necks.

The benefits and practical applicability of Caviness’s model are evident in all of the contributions to this intriguing collection. They engage, question, correct, and destabilize accepted notions about major monuments and concepts in medieval art history today; as such they are ideal reading for undergraduate and graduate courses as well as for discussion among specialists. Schleif’s case study on the Ehenheim Epitaph borrows from history and anthropology, advocating “particular history,” emic concepts, and thick description. Her careful study of archival sources and the material qualities of the painting helps us to understand an unusual representation of Christ that reveals his genitals. It offers an ideological understanding of this motif that contrasts with the well-known debate between Leo Steinberg and Caroline Walker Bynum that focuses on its theological meaning. At the same time, Schleif draws upon Caviness’s own meditation on representations of skin color in the Middle Ages.

Anne Harris turns to philosophy, using Martin Heidegger’s notions of origin and “thingness,” to reveal something about the character of medieval stained glass and how it came to operate as an important commodity in the overlapping and competing spiritual and commercial economies of Chartres. She thus contributes to the ideologically fraught debate about the meaning of the trade windows at Chartres. She helps to negotiate the frequently romanticized vision of the primary sources with Jane Williams’s Marxist critique (Bread, Wine & Money: The Windows of the Trades at Chartres Cathedral, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), which has never been properly integrated into the literature (and which still deserves more scholarly attention). Harris’s close reading of the shoemaker windows suggests additional valences that both respond to changing attitudes toward money and labor, and offer new techniques for identity formation.

Karl Whittington’s essay brings recent scholarship on medieval models of sex and gender to bear on a diagram of the female reproductive system that appears in a relatively obscure thirteenth-century medical manuscript. His keen observations about viewer orientation and diagramming in this manuscript offer revelations about how representational strategies construct identity. His essay makes us see the power of the image in reflecting and reinforcing culturally distinct patterns of thought in a way that is reminiscent of Michael Baxandall’s notion of the “period eye.”

Visual rhetoric in the Middle Ages could also be plotted in three-dimensional space, as Dressler shows in her treatment of fourteenth-century tomb effigies in a family chapel of St. Mary’s Church, Limington. Her sensitive reading of the position and dress of her figures in light of what is known of their dynastic status elucidates how these monuments could map very specific social relationships and anxieties (though I am not sure I accept that a tomb for an important female could be described as “abject” because it was smaller than a more elaborate monument for her husband). Dressler’s analysis of margin and center, and of gender and class, nevertheless offers a window into these prominent works whose non-narrative format and unemotional, repetitive forms can make them seem inaccessible to modern viewers.

Sarah Bromberg addresses another medieval object that has historically stymied modern viewers: the Rothschild Canticles. It was not until Jeffrey Hamburger’s magisterial study of this once-neglected manuscript that art historians seriously engaged with its daring, perplexing, emotional, and sometimes sexually charged imagery (The Rothschild Canticles: Art and Mysticism in Flanders and the Rhineland circa 1300, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). Hamburger’s study of this manuscript led him (and others) to try to define and recover a distinctive kind of female piety, one that he argues inheres in the material objects that played a part in their devotional practices. Bromberg complicates this widely admired and now standard view when she charts the role in the manuscript not only of the female devout illustrated in the manuscript but also that of the numerous male and androgynous figures. By “queering” the Rothschild Canticles, Bromberg is able to posit different kinds of possible readers and messages that both “reinforce and evade a binary gender system” (23).

Sexual imagery is a vexed category for many medievalists, as Martha Easton points out in her essay on the erotic in medieval art. Terms like “erotic,” “sexual,” “obscene,” and “pornographic,” Easton notes, are subjective and historically contingent. Influential scholars such as Hamburger, Bynum, Margaret Miles, Steinberg, and others suspect that we are projecting modern preoccupations on the Middle Ages when we find erotic meanings in what seems to be sexual imagery in medieval religious contexts. Images, however, are inherently multivalent, and they can address aspects of human existence that cannot be explicitly recorded (and must therefore be theorized in order to tease out their potent meanings). Easton here provides a helpful catalogue of potentially sexual medieval images, both sacred and secular, “while understanding that the category of the erotic is neither absolute nor ahistorical” (2).

In all of these essays the authors have paid close attention to the language of imagery in order to make us notice something important about particular works of art that we may have otherwise overlooked. In the final essay of the collection, Linda Seidel makes a new observation about Jan van Eyck’s famous Adam and Eve panels on the wings of the Ghent Altarpiece. She points out, for the first time, the linea nigra on Eve’s belly, a physiological sign of advancing pregnancy. Seidel considers this detail in the context of Van Eyck’s treatment of flesh in these panels, especially the darker pigmentation of Adam’s face and hands that evoke clothes worn during outdoor labor. She argues that Van Eyck’s novel visualization of the Genesis story downplays the shame of the first couple and emphasizes the dignity of labor, which has the effect of claiming an “elevated ancestry of all work, including his own” (11).

It is an extraordinary event when five sessions at an international interdisciplinary conference are dedicated to the work of a single scholar, even more so when it is a living scholar who also participates. Different Visions permits us to consider its implications and ramifications in a more timely way than the increasingly glacial pace of academic publishing normally allows. Some material retains aspects of the oral character of the event, including remarks by Katherine Biddick, the transcript of an interview with Caviness, and Caviness’s own response to the papers. Here and there it is possible to discern a tenor of defensiveness and frustration about negative attitudes in the academy toward critical theory in general and feminism in particular. Schleif’s brief remarks on why art history is particularly resistant to critical methodologies are worth pausing over (10–11).

Different Visions is most welcome, as it demonstrates the expertise, vitality, and commitment of emerging and established scholars concerned with discovering how the quintessentially human activities of art making and viewing structure human subjectivity and social systems. Introductory material with a certain conversational quality prefaces strong, peer-reviewed, syllabus-worthy chapters. Each section is generously illustrated with color pictures and converts instantly into a handsomely designed PDF file. Schleif, Dressler, and the editorial board at Different Visions are to be congratulated for their innovative initiative of “triangulating” the desirable aspects of scholarly conferences, academic publishing, and electronic media in a way that is both energizing and inspiring.

Sherry C.M. Lindquist
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Knox College