Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2018
Jacqueline Jung The Gothic Screen: Space, Sculpture, and Community in the Cathedrals of France and Germany, ca.1200–1400 New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 282 pp.; 30 color ills.; 180 b/w ills. Cloth $113.00 (9781107022959)

The Gothic Screen contributes to the body of integrative studies of Gothic art and architecture with an examination of the monumental choir screen that stood between the liturgical choir and the nave and ambulatory. Not a comprehensive catalogue of Gothic screens, the book seeks to “expand our sense of what screens accomplished in their ecclesiastical setting,” which is here understood as “both the physical setting of the Gothic church and the social environment that the church shaped” (2). In this vein, Jacqueline Jung focuses attention on how a screen’s architectural design and sculptural program forged community and structured identity among various groups of viewers. In particular, she encourages us to see how the Gothic screen transcended its barrier function and instead “stood as a mechanism of mediation, monumental and permanent, between those groups” (7).

Chapter 1, “The Choir Screen as Partition,” opens with discussion of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century attitudes toward choir screens. Pointing to debates surrounding the screens in Münster Cathedral (1540s) and the Münster in Breisach (ca. 1497), Jung demonstrates how such furnishings were thought to hinder lay participation in the mass. This stance shaped scholarly approaches into the twentieth century, which largely saw the choir screen as a means of concealing clergy—and the Eucharist—from laypeople. It is this presupposition of rigorous separation that the study seeks to correct. After a survey of partitions from the early Middle Ages to the Gothic era, examples from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in France and the German-speaking lands receive particular attention. Screens of later periods and from various areas of Europe are discussed and extensively documented in the book’s rich apparatus of notes and bibliography. Despite variations in type, these structures displayed several common features: often vaulted, they furnished space for upper platforms and surfaces for sculpture, and they also provided a canopy-like shelter for altars located in front of the screen. 

In chapter 2, “The Choir Screen as Bridge,” Jung concentrates on the sculpted Crucifixion groups positioned above screens, enabling them to function as a “bridge” between nave and choir. Such crucifixes engaged viewers in the nave with their physicality, disposition, and gazes, and offered a veritable figuration of the Eucharistic body on the high altar behind the screen. For Jung, the crucifix consciously cast Christ’s body as “bivalent”—suffering and triumphant, human and divine. As such, this type of image was particularly well “suited to mark the threshold between the Church Militant [in the nave] and the Church Triumphant [in the choir]” (51). Marshaling an array of sources, Jung illuminates how the upper platform was used for liturgical readings, chanting, and staging liturgical drama, as well as for legal pronouncements and appearances of ecclesiastical and secular dignitaries. Contesting the supposition that screens exclusively served clergy’s need for spatial separation, Jung convincingly suggests that screens may have become a particular locus of lay identity: not only was the Cross altar for lay masses usually located in front of the choir screen, burial in proximity to screens also attests to lay claims to this area of the church. Dispelling misconceptions of screens as impenetrable barriers, Jung also adduces evidence from textual sources that points to the movement of laypeople through the screen and into the choir, which appears to have been more common than is usually assumed.

In many instances, however, laypeople likely accessed the choir only with their eyes. Chapter 3, “The Choir Screen as Frame,” considers how doors and windows mediated lay experience of the inner sanctum. Jung suggests how such openings may have directed the beholder’s gaze, and she anchors this sort of focused looking within the broader trend toward vision-based devotion characteristic of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As elsewhere in the book, the well-preserved ensemble of choir screen and sculptures of donor figures in the west choir of Naumburg Cathedral occupies a central place. The unusual placement of the sculpted Crucifixion group in the screen’s portal juxtaposes Christ’s body with the altar behind the screen. Taken as a whole, the Naumburg ensemble can be seen as enacting “a moving picture of proper devotional behaviour” (89), one set in motion through the viewer’s own movement in front of the screen. The chapter concludes by examining how Gothic choir screens anticipated the use of illusionistic architectural frames in late-medieval panel painting to mark thresholds. While these conceits are usually celebrated as an achievement of fifteenth-century visual culture, Jung provocatively connects them with practices of looking engendered by screens. As she concludes, “the dynamic tension generated by such framings . . . was precisely what choir screens had been creating in churches for at least two hundred years” (96).

Chapter 4, “Women, Men, and the Social Order,” assesses the significance of a sculptural program’s subject matter. Jung underscores the importance of the Fourth Lateran Council’s (1215) concern with pastoral care, and she suggests that screens erected afterward not only protected clergy and the Eucharist in the choir, but also represented an attempt to reach out to lay viewers through sculpture. In so doing, she highlights the importance accorded to female protagonists and their modes of accessing Christ’s body in several programs. As this chapter forcefully reminds us, female biblical figures may have offered spiritual models for both women and men, laypeople and clergy alike. Equally ecumenical in appeal was Last Judgment imagery, which enjoyed currency on choir screens as evinced by fragments from a cycle from the west choir screen of Mainz Cathedral (ca. 1235–40) and the reliefs on the slightly later screen in nearby Gelnhausen (ca. 1250). Such imagery, of course, demonstrated in no uncertain terms the power of the Church over souls. Yet, as Jung argues, the inclusion of clergy among the damned may reflect a sense of community and perhaps even an “effort on the clergy’s part to soften the social boundaries that the screen, as a partition, established” (131). 

The role of sculpture in prompting reflection on individual behavior also forms the subject of chapter 5, “Jews, Christians, and the Question of the Individual.” Here, Jung stresses the multivalent meaning of depictions of biblical Jews on choir screens (and in the Gothic cathedral in general). In addition to offering a forum for anti-Jewish polemic, imagery of the Jewish “Other” may, as Jung suggests, have sometimes served as a lens for examining the Christian self. Dating from 1395 to 1411, the Passion reliefs on the choir screen and enclosure in Havelberg Cathedral, for instance, present an overwhelmingly negative image of Jews as Christ’s tormentors. In the Passion reliefs on the west screen of Naumburg Cathedral, by contrast, the role of the Jews in Christ’s suffering is much more ambiguous, and emphasis lies instead on Judas’s treachery. Jung shows how Judas is formally isolated and his maleficence highlighted to offer the viewer an example of the consequences of individual transgression against lordly authority.

Chapter 6, “Nobles, Peasants, and the Vernacular Mode,” examines the representation of social difference in choir-screen sculpture. The west choir screen in Naumburg and the Chartres screen again stand out in this regard. In the reliefs of the Chartres Infancy cycle, for their part, the cast of characters—ranging from the regal Magi through to the humble shepherds—offered lay beholders of different social stations immediate and arresting examples of “God’s efforts to communicate with humanity—and . . . humanity’s capacity to apprehend his messages” (180). As the fronts of screens stood in marked contrast to the sides facing the choir, Jung points to some potential reasons for this, such as the fact that the rear side of the screen often bore functional elements (staircases, niches, and the like), or that such movable media as textiles were often used to decorate the inner walls of the choir. Jung encourages us to see the naturalistic style of sculpture on the front of screens as a form of “vernacular”—a formal mode intended to be easily comprehensible to lay viewers, and that paralleled the rhetorical strategies of contemporary preaching.

An epilogue briefly shifts focus to the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. For Jung, numerous medieval phenomena—lay burial and endowment of altars near screens, for instance—continued the initial patterns of the laity’s identification with the screen. The study comes full circle with a discussion of choir screens’ destruction as a consequence of shifting tastes and a desire to integrate the laity more fully into the liturgy, starting in the post-Reformation era and increasing in intensity in the following centuries.

The Gothic Screen offers an important account of this central liturgical furnishing during the critical period of its emergence and initial development. The study’s core argument—that the choir screen was an integral component of the Gothic church and a constitutive element in the formation of spiritual communities—emerges clearly and convincingly from the multitude of examples discussed within. Mobilizing textual and visual sources and detailed observations of the structures, Jung helps us imagine how medieval viewers experienced choir screens and their sculpture. 

Adam R. Stead
Curatorial and Research Associate, Museum Schnütgen