Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 24, 2017
Christina Normore A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 272 pp.; 4 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226242200)

Christina Normore’s first book gracefully crosses disciplines in its examination of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century art. A Feast for the Eyes: Art, Performance, and the Late Medieval Banquet encompasses performance, so-called “decorative” arts, book illumination, painting, and literature. Normore posits the feast as a major artistic form that has much to reveal about culture. Which culture, may one ask? The attractive book title does not reflect Normore’s real focus, which is the theatrical productions commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good for his famous Feast of the Pheasant staged in his palace in Lille in 1454. The purpose of that event was to launch a crusade, which contrasts with another occasion for banqueting included in this book, the marriage of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York in Bruges in 1468. Thus, it is the Valois Burgundian court, and especially these two moments, that interest Normore. Readers should not expect the broader and synthetic take provided by Roy Strong’s Feast: A History of Grand Eating (New York: Harcourt, 2003). It is regretful that the wealth of textual sources (poems, chronicles, songs, sermons, inventories, but only one cookbook) does not include archival research. Yet within its own unannounced limits, A Feast for the Eyes still contributes to advancing the field.

Normore sets out to analyze single banquets within the context of their symbolic programs and a broader set of customs and values. For her, feasts encouraged ethical and social discernment, and this is where her approach is eye-opening. Using both texts and images, Normore explores the ethical dimension of banquets while challenging the idea of excess. She also offers a striking demonstration of the inadequacy of the modern critical apparatus. Categories such as static and time-based art forms, living-dead, spiritual-earthly, chivalric-religious, spectator-spectacle are highly unstable when applied to late medieval feasting. Her study suggests the lasting legacy of the ephemeral, which should urge more art historians to consider past performances and vanished objects as a valid topic.

The word entremets, which corresponds to a type of dessert in present-day French cuisine, meant many things in the Middle Ages, from a savory and elaborately prepared dish, to tableware items made by skilled artisans, to musical and theatrical performances. The first chapter surveys this semantic field, making a case for using late medieval (and, I would add, Renaissance) entremets as a distinct conceptual category that transcends boundaries between the animate and the inanimate: performers freeze, statues move, miniature figures are propelled, a boat on the table rocks, dead animals look alive, water cascades from the complex mechanisms of silver-gilt table fountains while a living lion is kept securely tied near the dining tables. Entremets were not the work of a single artistic director but a collaborative production at various stages of the planning, from the depths of the kitchen to the stage floor of the banquet hall. Already in this early section of her study, Normore moves adroitly through sources and art media.

Chapter 2 challenges the typical roles attributed to the “audience.” The traditional dichotomy between spectators and actors attributes a passive role to guests, but in entremets viewing and participation were intimately connected, which images and texts prove. Implicating diners in the performance instilled proper behavior in them: pantomimed emotions were the means to create real emotions and convince the courtiers gathered at the Feast of the Pheasant to embark on the ducal crusade. Normore shows that the status of feast participants fluctuated on a “subtly graded spectrum” (73), something that performance theory does not consider. The interplay between real and fictive worlds promoted proper behavior and the ideology of leaders as models.

Chapter 3 investigates the dangers of dissimulation, given that guests were aware of the potential for hypocrisy. Master of ceremonies Olivier de la Marche expressed reservations about the seriousness of the 1454 performance. Were the noblemen’s crusading vows part of the fantasy of the show or really binding? Was the acting of the host seen as premeditated or sincere? Normore teases out the tension between controlled display and the concern for the possible consequences of false appearances. She argues that spontaneity was a source of anxiety for audiences. Her evidence for mindless actions, or behavior with no intentions, includes simian iconography (“monkeying around”) that she contrasts with visual depictions of sorrow and judgment to signify the necessity for emotional restraint and control of the situation. Reading between the lines, Normore interprets the performers’ emotional display as a communicative strategy on the part of the leader and a powerful political tool. She introduces here the idea of the influence that banqueting may have beyond its walls.

Chapter 4 frames feasts as locations for the practice of both magnificence and temperance. A classical concept glossed differently by Aristotle and Cicero, magnificence may not be seen as grand expenditure only. As late medieval ethical literature testifies, it was associated with courage and spiritual strength and seen as a spur to artistic patronage well before the Italian Renaissance. Its representation in manuscripts is often linked to dining practices and adapted from the imagery of the virtue of temperance. Paucity or excess of magnificence have political implications for the leader. Rather than being characterized by monetary extravagance or exuding excess, banquets should be seen as a training ground for developing skills of discernment and instilling court values.

Chapter 5 explores the three aesthetic categories of the wonderful, the marvelous, and the strange, with which chroniclers praise the unfolding of entremets. Normore fleshes out the awareness of artifice by examining the literary tradition in which chivalric wonders and marvels abound, and by looking at Northern devotional painting with its dense symbolism. In the same vein, diners got involved in the fantastical world of enacted scenes, delighting in their multiple meanings. A Byzantine icon and its Netherlandish copy, a salt cellar featuring a giant, and the Ghent altarpiece illustrate the unexpected and the foreign. Likewise, ambiguity and paradox marked the experience of elite diners where entremets balanced playful imitations with the viewers’ realization of the trick. The same layers of artificiality can be read in the tableware of the January page of Duke of Berry’s Très Riches Heures (1416), a novel and convincing argument on Normore’s part. The appreciation for wit and mimesis questions the idea of suspension of disbelief for alert diners who relished in the mingling of genres.

Chapter 6 analyzes the innovative entremets for the wedding of Charles the Bold, the last duke of Burgundy, to Margaret of York in 1468. Normore notes that they staged various forms of gift-giving but with no apparent reciprocity. She contends that the counter-gift took shape subsequently, as stunned aristocrats spread the news of the value of the match and the mutual consent they had witnessed. In addition, splendid and “strange” entremets produced an image of a virtuous bride confirming her role as a moral guide, a model for her community, and a worthy continuer of lineage. Normore links motifs and strategies of marriage festivities to subsequent art patronage. For almost forty years after her marriage feast, book imagery, medals (evoked but not discussed by Normore), and funerary arts celebrated Margaret of York as a just ruler and a source of virtue. This finale needs more elaboration as Normore’s evidence mostly consists of her close analysis of illuminations.

The mention of “for the eyes” in the title points at what is missing in this fine book—the holistic sensory experience of feasting. The surprising absence of taste and smell may be justified by Normore’s observation that food was underemphasized in both visual and textual narratives. These sources stressed instead the high visibility of both performers and guests as well as the elegance of the hall. Sound, and the reputed music created for the Burgundian court, surely deserved some space. Quite regretful is the obliteration of the sense of touch with all that it communicates. Normore’s keen iconographic analyses do not account for the performative use and handling of objects. For example, weight, manipulation, content, and sizes of the exquisite tableware from which diners ate and drank conveyed special meanings. How did diners interact with the objects at their disposal? How did objects dictate or shape their comportment? Hand gestures or head positions accompanying tableware (as in figs. 23–24) actually comment on good or bad manners, a point the present reviewer raised elsewhere (Pascale Rihouet, “Veronese’s Goblets: Glass Design and the Civilization Process,” Journal of Design History 26, no. 2 [June 2013]: 133–51). Recent studies in material culture come to mind such as Re-thinking Renaissance Objects: Design, Function and Meaning, edited by Peta Motture and Michelle O’Malley (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

Despite this criticism, A Feast for the Eyes should be lauded for its interdisciplinarity and for presenting feasting as a Gesamtkunstwerk, an analytic category by itself. Normore cogently highlights the late medieval systems of thought within which banqueting existed, including habits of judgment and their aesthetic counterpart, ethical and social discernment, genre expectations, and the didactic intents of authors. Normore shows how such ephemeral events “continued to reverberate in the political, personal, and artistic production” (164) long after their performance.

Pascale Rihouet
Senior Lecturer, Department of History of Art and Visual Culture, Rhode Island School of Design