Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 16, 2012
Emanuel Klinkenberg Compressed Meanings: The Donor's Model in Medieval Art to around 1300 Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. 310 pp.; 127 b/w ills. Paper $128.00 (9782503528359)

The image of a donor holding an architectural model is a familiar feature in medieval art, and yet it is a deceptively challenging subject for comprehensive study. While there are many preserved examples in a variety of media spanning the entire Middle Ages, there are also many documented, but now lost, examples for which both the date and compositional elements are often questionable. In short, the record is far from complete. Even among the extant representations, the ways in which the buildings are depicted range widely, both in terms of viewpoints (i.e., from the side, front, or back) and of architectural details. Such differences cannot be attributed simply to general changes in artistic styles, since they are found in virtually all time periods from the sixth to the early fourteenth centuries. Do such variations, therefore, involve differences in meaning? Likewise, do formal similarities, sometimes appearing over long time spans, indicate continuity in meaning? And, if so, in either case, what are the intended messages? These are some of the questions addressed in this new book by Emanuel Klinkenberg. Indeed, the title, Compressed Meanings, emphasizes Klinkenberg’s iconographic focus.

The text is divided into fifteen relatively brief chapters, framed by an introductory essay and a two-page conclusion. Klinkenberg begins by outlining his methodological approach that looks for “links with motifs which were familiar to the intended beholder” and thereby created a “channel” along which “messages” were conveyed (16). The subsequent chapters, each involving case studies grouped around a common theme, are presented in roughly chronological order. The first, not surprisingly, deals with Rome and a series of mosaic papal portraits with church models beginning with Felix IV (526–530) in SS. Cosma e Damiano, albeit substantially reconstructed in the seventeenth century, and ending with Innocent II (1130–1143) in S. Maria in Trastevere. The second chapter focuses on Italian centers like Ravenna and its orbit, especially the representations of bishops Ecclesius (ca. 546–550) in S. Vitale and Eufrasius of Parenzo (524–556), as well as Monte Cassino under Abbot Desiderius (1058–1087), who is depicted holding a church model in the apse of S. Angelo in Formis. The third chapter deals with lesser church figures and secular donors in the early Middle Ages, while the fourth investigates ways in which twelfth-century portraits presented the city of Trier as a second Rome. Chapter 5 explores how donor portraits in Germany and Austria could proclaim papal protection and privileges; the sixth detects expressions of power struggles among the clergy in Bonn, Hildesheim, and Salzburg; and the seventh presents twelfth-century examples in France and Belgium, including Reims (St. Remi) and Autun (St. Lazare). Chapter 8 concerns what Klinkenberg calls “the imperial tradition” which features prominent representations of Emperor Otto I in a famous carved ivory plaque, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pope Nicholas III (1277–1280) in the wall paintings of the S. Sanctorum in Rome; and Charlemagne in relief on an early thirteenth-century golden shrine, created to contain his remains, at Aachen. Chapter 9 looks at manifestations of an “imperial-royal” tradition in the archdiocese of Trier, while chapter 10 presents purported examples of the same phenomenon in Poland. The next three chapters consider an increase of model-bearers on preserved funerary monuments in Germany and France, while chapter 14 turns to examples in stained glass in Austria. Chapter 15 summarizes the study’s overall findings under several headings: “Origin,” “Diffusion,” “Rome as Reference Point,” “Likeness,” and “Aspect and Symbolic Additions.”

Such a compartmentalized organization means that each example must be evaluated on its own merits. For the most part, Klinkenberg makes a compelling argument for the contextual circumstances for the creation of individual images. Less convincing are some of his overarching hypotheses that attempt to link certain representations otherwise separated by time and space. Great import, for example, is given to whether in each instance the entrance façade or the apse end of the church model faces the viewer and is therefore projecting away from the donor. The first arrangement is commonly found in papal portraits in Rome, while the second variant, with the apse end facing outward, is associated here, rather tangentially, with an imperial tradition, exemplified by the well-known model-bearing portrait in mosaic of Justinian from around 1000 in Hagia Sophia. Klinkenberg believes that in the Roman tradition the apse was turned toward the pontiff because it contained the bishop’s cathedra and that when this formula was not followed it carried special meaning. Thus, Bishop Eufrasius of Parenzo is shown holding the church in the “imperial manner” because it “alluded to his desire to put an end to Byzantine dominance in Istria” (43), and Pope Innocent II broke with Roman tradition in order “to represent himself as the builder of the ‘imperial’ triumphal basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere” (135). Certainly these images were carefully composed, but more nuance is required to justify such broad, generalized statements. Despite the methodological explanation in the introduction, no attempt is made to identify the “intended beholder” or to explain how “the motif” would have been “familiar” in order to convey its message. Furthermore, far too many model-bearing portraits of both popes and emperors have been lost to confirm that strict compositional conventions existed. Similarly, much effort is expended throughout the book to establish a mosaic portrait of Constantine on the triumphal arch of Old St. Peter’s in Rome as the primary source of church-bearing portraits in general. Although this an appealing notion, the image is only documented in a brief textual reference by Cardinal Domenico Giacobacci, with no accompanying graphic rendering, which was published posthumously in 1538, long after the relevant portion of the old church had been destroyed to make way for the present edifice. Thus the date of the portrait of Constantine has been contested, and, pertinent to this discussion, the manner in which the church-model was presented is not indicated in the source material. Thus it would seem best to concentrate on the evidence at hand, which, in fact, proves to be the major strength of this book.

Using Compressed Meanings as a reference work, one learns basic information about the specific historical circumstances related to individual representations, with additional bibliography in the notes. Clear black-and-white photographs imbedded in the text present detailed images of the models, although, unfortunately, not always including the accompanying patrons. One can therefore note the inclusion of a crossing tower in certain instances, for example, without necessarily accepting Klinkenberg’s interpretation of it as a symbolic reference to the Holy Sepulcher. Some groupings are also particularly poignant, as in chapter 8, where Otto I and Charlemagne are shown, respectively, offering their churches (Magdeburg Cathedral and the Palatine Chapel at Aachen), apse ends first, to Christ in the former example and the Virgin Mary in the latter. Whether or not the directional arrangement was part of an “imperial tradition,” it is noteworthy in these two particular cases that the donor is positioned so that the prime sacred figure is close enough to touch the east end of the church where the high altar stood.

Compressed Meanings may not be the grand iconographic synthesis that Klinkenberg intended, but it impressively demonstrates the richness and variety of model-bearing portraits in Western medieval art and that they are indeed worthy of continued scrutiny.

Charles B. McClendon
Sidney and Ellen Wien Professor in the History of Art, Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University