Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2017
Wolfgang Brückle, Pierre Alain Mariaux, and Daniela Mondini, eds. Musealisierung mittelalterlicher Kunst: Anlässe, Ansätze, Ansprüche Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2015. 296 pp.; 148 b/w ills. Cloth $79.99 (9783422073340)
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Medieval works of art were made to fit into their specific ecclesiastical or secular contexts. Since the eighteenth century, such objects have been removed from their original intended locations and subsequently destroyed or placed into private or public collections. Detached from original context and use, the perception and presentation of medieval art has brought about an inherent tension: on the one hand this process has led to an understanding of medieval objects as standalone artistic creations, while on the other hand such a process is accompanied by a growing discomfort among curators with attempts to recontextualize objects back into their original historical frameworks.

Musealisierung mittelalterlicher Kunst: Anlässe, Ansätze, Ansprüche, edited by Wolfgang Brückle, Pierre Alain Mariaux, and Daniela Mondini, presents this history of the “museumization” (Musealisierung) of medieval art: that is, how medieval art became part of collections and the subsequent development of museum presentation. The subject is not new, as the history of public collections and museums has been a topic in numerous recent publications, many with a focus on the decades around 1800 in France. However, a look at the role of medieval art within this process is overdue.

Questioning the presentation of medieval art before 1800 seems surprising at first glance, considering the comparatively peripheral role these objects played until at least the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The most innovative part of the book is therefore the prehistory of medieval collections. In his introductory essay, Brückle traces the origins of medieval art’s presentation and outlines how the perception of medieval objects changed from curious documents of the past to objects with appreciable aesthetic value. For Brückle, this history begins in the early seventeenth century, when Duke Friedrich of Württemberg transferred several medieval objects, such as the famous Freudenstadt Romanesque lectern, to his newly founded parish church. In this case, the objects remained in an ecclesiastical setting, although it is not clear whether they retained a specific liturgical function in a Protestant church.

Tobias Kunz develops further the “museumization” process by discussing the handling of medieval images in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Parallel to a visual continuity in Protestant church interiors, Kunz observes a particular meaning connected with “appearing old” in relation to historicizing strategies of object staging. For the period before 1700, Kunz illuminates several examples, such as the altarpieces of Oberwesel (Germany) and Kefermarkt (Austria), which show a surprising assimilation of seventeenth-century additions to the original Gothic figural motives and forms, thus obscuring original work from restoration. Furthermore, after 1700, medieval miraculous images at pilgrimage sites were presented against Baroque backgrounds in which the medieval image looked alien and archaic, such as in Zwiefalten (Upper Swabia, Germany). Kunz makes the long overdue attempt to question the relationship between Baroque contexts and the integration of medieval objects, marked by increasing contextual isolation of medieval objects, which has not been sufficiently reflected by scholarship so far. Kunz finds significant parallels between some eighteenth-century presentation methods with later museum installations. In the abbey church of Schöntal an der Jagst (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), older tombstones were rearranged during a major renovation from 1708–17, which Kunz compares with a museum-like memorial hall containing historic monuments. He sees a unifying impression of a gallery to teach and memorialize, with objects explained by text labels, as in later museums. Subsequent questions would be whether these tombstones were purely historic objects or part of the liturgical life of the monks of Schöntal in commemorating their ancient founders and donors, or whether this arrangement was at least partly inspired by antiquarian movements since the second half of the seventeenth century around the congregation of St.-Maur.

In a second essay, Brückle provides examples of a medieval revival in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in particular an appreciation for medieval art among a limited circle of noblemen. Brückle convincingly demonstrates how scenographic productions of context aim to produce a holistic idea of the Middle Ages, and in fact go back to the middle of the eighteenth century. Brückle’s historiography starts with the gothic remodeling of Old Windsor in 1758 by Richard Bateman and moves to lesser-known examples such as the pseudo-Gothic chapel of Prince Ludwig von Öttingen-Wallerstein for his collection in his castle in Wallerstein. It is important to note that against this backdrop, Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des monuments français loses its position as an isolated example in favor of a broader European context for this process of display.

This becomes clear in Cecilia Hurley’s analysis of Lenoir’s strategies to establish the museum in Paris. Hurley outlines how Lenoir was confronted with a demand among the revolutionaries to overthrow and erase France’s feudal past. His achievement was a transformation of public awareness by detaching medieval objects physically, intellectually, and emotionally from their earlier contexts. Being convinced of their aesthetic importance, Lenoir gradually implemented a museum of French art and history. He developed various spaces such as the thirteenth-century room, replete with color, lighting effects, and decorations carefully chosen to give the impression of entering a medieval chapel as a way to transport visitors back to a century foreign to their Neoclassical taste.

How Lenoir’s museum set the benchmarks for sustainable presentation methods is a subject of Markus Thomé’s essay. Two significant nineteenth-century examples demonstrate the afterlife of Lenoir’s approach, which foreshadow landmark museum installations of the twentieth century. The first, the Landesmuseum in Zürich, crystallizes the strategy of an atmospheric mise-en-scène, wherein objects merge with the setting, thus aggravating the differentiation between medieval objects and their copies. In another example, the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, under its director Jakob Heinrich von Hefner-Alteneck, established a department for applied arts with eighteen special collections, thereby setting up the scenario of separated installations according to genres—a concept completely foreign to medieval viewers.

Manuela Beer explores the history of the Museum Schnütgen in Cologne and offers an alternative approach to the previous case studies. Alexander Schnütgen (1843–1918), a theologian and priest in Cologne, collected medieval art for the purpose of a study collection and created a broad panorama of Christian artistic production, with a focus on the richness of church furnishings. Schnütgen’s leading idea was to establish a series of types relating to cultural traditions and customs for handling materials. Schnütgen’s principle of assembling different object genres resonated in different installations over the following decades. The collection’s rearrangement by Herbert Witte in 1931 marked a change of display paradigms by isolating the object from any context with the intent to move artistic quality into the center. Framed by a neutral background, the artwork was installed in such a way that facilitates an experience of it as an artistic creation.

These tendencies culminated in a spectacular presentation at the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa by Caterina Marcenaro and Franco Albini in 1949–51, discussed in an essay by Daniela Mondini and Isabel Haupt. In this case, the medieval works of art were presented as purely aesthetic contemporary objects, whereby historic markers were eliminated in favor of an immediate aesthetic experience devoid of all functional, cultic, and decorative purposes. The concept followed a chronological order based on schools, comparable to the model found in art-history survey books. Consequently, frames were removed from paintings, and the frameless images were presented on white walls. In a complete reversal of Lenoir’s Musée de monuments français, this presentation uses medieval objects to create thrilling confrontations, rather than testimonies of the past.

These different poles, contextual evocation versus aesthetic purism, have had a formative influence on the curatorial presentation of medieval art up to the present day. This important volume brings many fascinating examples together and offers starting points for future research. Some of the essays expand the main topic with further examples or link these developments with a different geographical horizon, such as by Lena Liepe on Sweden, while others show the breadth of related questions, such as William Diebold’s contribution to several German exhibitions on Ottonian art. In sum, Musealisierung mittelalterlicher Kunst is an important building block in shaping our awareness for the development and reception of medieval art, and beyond that, for medieval art history as an academic discipline.

Gerhard Lutz
Curator, Dommuseum Hildesheim, Germany

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.