Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2017
Laura Weigert French Visual Culture and the Making of Medieval Theater New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 290 pp.; 8 color ills.; 143 b/w ills. Cloth $99.99 (9781107040472)
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Research on the relation between theater and art in the late Middle Ages relies on a rich history, first highlighted in the work of Emile Mâle and Gustave Cohen at the beginning of the twentieth century. The two prominent scholars started a long tradition of looking at exchanges between art and theater, as well as at the perceived “realism” of these media. In her latest book, Laura Weigert proposes a different understanding of theater and art that concentrates on the realms of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century French kings and Burgundian dukes. Weigert disrupts accepted thinking that separates these media and replaces it with a reconstruction of a rich culture wherein theater and art closely intersect.

Weigert uses a range of famous sources, such as the illuminations commemorating the Valenciennes Passion Play in 1547 and Joanna of Castile’s entry into Brussels in 1496, as well as less usual suspects, such as a painted cloth showing the Vengeance. Starting from these sources, the author makes it clear that it is far too simple to presume that one medium took over themes and visual appearances from another. By bringing these divergent sources together, she reconstructs the rich culture at the French and Burgundian courts, churches, and city streets and squares, which, on the one hand, formed a distinct performance tradition, and, on the other, determined how these performances were remembered in the following decades and even centuries.

In her first chapter, Weigert looks at personagias, persons and inanimate figures on scaffolds now called tableaux vivants, through the example of Joanna of Castile’s entry into Brussels in 1496. In so doing, she does not follow downtrodden paths of a direct political reading of the subject matter, but rather shows how actors were part of the same ontological register as the painted figures and mannequins staged on the scaffolds, thereby holding an equal distance from the audience as the inanimate figures. Weigert continues her discussion by looking at the entry’s “entertainers”: wild men and women, jesters, fools, and masked bagpipers. By relating them to the world of urban festive culture with its celebrations of guilds and chambers of rhetoric, the author clarifies how these performers bring us to another strand of the late medieval performance tradition, distinct from the personagias.

The second chapter focuses on illuminated manuscripts commemorating Passion plays, specifically the Arras manuscript (1470) and two Valenciennes manuscripts (one from before and one of 1577). Although a century separates the manuscripts, Weigert shows that they have interesting parallels, which cannot be explained using the model of realism Mâle and Cohen initiated. By contrast, Weigert’s analysis demonstrates “that the makers and viewers of such large-scale productions moved flexibly between their lived environment and the fictional realm of the sacred events and that they praised the latter as a product of human accomplishment” (77). Moreover, the author meticulously describes how the artists of the manuscripts appropriated performances of the Passion by showing, for example, how the devils, relying on improvisation and an ambiguous, variable part in live performances, became fixed characters in the Valenciennes manuscript of 1577.

Weigert focuses on the experience of heroic battles in the following chapter. By analysing tapestries representing battles, such as Gideon’s battles, Jerusalem’s destruction, and the Battle of Roosebeke, as well as depictions of the same period indicating how such tapestries were hung, Weigert relates these descriptions of performances to the battles by living figures, and she again presents an interesting new view on late medieval theater and mediality, as well as materiality. She first points out that the perception of the tapestries shifts between the frenzy of battle, a legible story, and the materiality of the object. The viewer is overwhelmed by the many details of the violent confrontation and tries to place it in the tradition of famous narratives, but also admires the rich materials and superb weaving technique. Then she relates this layered perception to the experience of watching a performance of such battles with a similar combination of constant shifts in focus: “We might, for an instant, imagine ourselves as a warrior engaged in battle and, for another, admire our neighbor’s skill and costumes and the way the marketplace was adorned” (160).

The fourth chapter builds on the work of Judy Enders who broadened our understanding of violence in late medieval drama and its rhetorical and aesthetic strategies. To do this, Weigert looks at printed play texts and large painted cloths, which were not directly related to actual performances. Departing from the manuscript and performance tradition of the Vengeance of God for the dead of His Son, they offer an experience of a play that can be seen as an alternative to that of actual performances, thereby creating a new character: a reader of plays. The printed texts and painted cloths created a spectator of plays too, as they situate the viewer at a distance from the representational space in which the action occurs, thereby revising their own performance tradition by following the antiquarian idea of the theater.

In her last chapter, Weigert focuses on a most intriguing print promoting Catholicism via the Miracle of Laon, or the exorcism of the devil from a girl’s body thanks to the Host in 1566. This brings Weigert to discuss a complex appreciation of the theater. On the one hand, the theater is related to the devil as pure falseness. Thus, reformers in Laon belittled the exorcism as “un jeu industrieux,” but even the print from the Catholic side attacks the theater in depicting inappropriate amorous spectators, thus falling back on an ancient critique, which linked the theater to sexual misbehavior. On the other hand, the print relies on contemporary urban performances by embodying their improvisational verve and the spatial expansiveness. Nevertheless, the print had to clarify that the exorcism was more than a humanly engineered performance of a miracle. Therefore, it related the performance of exorcism to that of the Mass, with the bishop shown in both the role of celebrant and exorcist.

Theater and art historians interested in mediality and materiality of the late Middle Ages need to read this book, as it gives innovative insights into a culture in which our medial separations do not easily apply, and in which make-believe and attention for the making are combined in the perception. Moreover, theater and art historians concentrating on other periods or on contemporary subjects should read this book. Weigert’s discussion of the representation of violence in text, image, and performance can enrich views on the Senecan plays, the tragédie sanglante, and Edmund Burke’s delightful horror, and even put them in a broader frame. However, to elaborate on this transhistorical and transmedial view I miss a clear conceptual framework. Weigert analyses her sources as meticulously as can be, but leaves the readers a bit on their own when it comes to understanding the underlying modern concepts that stimulated her research.

The title of the book gives central emphasis to the term “visual culture”; however, there is not much explication throughout the book. Of course, thanks to the work of scholars such as Martin Jay and W. J. T. Mitchell we already have a good view on what “visual culture” contains. But I do not entirely understand why Weigert has put the emphasis on the visual and not on broader concepts, such as mediality, materiality, and even performance, as throughout the book she relies on performances that go beyond the mere visual even if the performances of living figures are eventually appropriated by text and image. Moreover, whereas the introduction pays attention to the concept of theatricality, it gives the reader a kaleidoscopic view on the concept, which does not really clarify how the concept can be workable for the book.

Other concepts would have provided a deeper understanding, especially those developed in performance studies, e.g., “restored behavior” (Richard Schechner), “immersion” (Oliver Grau), and “communitas” (Victor Turner), as well as “divided consciousness,” developed by psychologist Ernest Hilgard and now fruitfully used in performance studies, but thus far neglected in art-historical research. The responses to tapestries Weigert discusses could have been given a deeper understanding and broader reach thanks to such a concept.

Nevertheless, Weigert’s book is for anyone who wants to learn more about the complex relation between performance, text, and image in the late Middle Ages. In an elaborate, bright, and convincing way, the author advocates an understanding that abandons the old models of reciprocity between different media in favor of a view on late medieval mediality with less clear separations. Moreover, she challenges the idea that theater makers and artists primarily experimented in creating the illusion of being present at the events, replacing that idea by far more refined responses that negotiated between dealing with performance as living presence and an evaluation of the performance for its presentation of skill, use of materials, and appropriation of a narrative tradition.

Stijn Bussels
Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Leiden University/ European Research Council

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