Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2018
Nicole R. Myers, ed. Art and Nature in the Middle Ages Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 136 pp.; 115 color ills. Paper $35.00 (9780300227055)
Dallas Museum of Art, December 4, 2016–March 19, 2017
Art and Nature in the Middle Ages, Dallas Museum of Art, December 4, 2016–March 19, 2017 (photograph © 2016; provided by Dallas Museum of Art)

The title to the exhibition Art and Nature in the Middle Ages at the Dallas Museum of Art appeared in large gilded letters set upon a forest-green wall and framed by a lush foliate border similar to those gracing late-medieval manuscripts. The glittering composition signaled that something beautiful waited around the corner. A small creature, outlined in gold and similarly lifted from lively Gothic illuminations, playfully peeked from a lower corner of the same wall, imparting a lighthearted sensibility. Both impressions held true for this collection of largely Romanesque and Gothic objects from the Musée de Cluny–Musée National du Moyen Âge in Paris. With nearly every medium represented—stained glass, enamel, manuscript illumination, ceramic, ivory and bone, tapestry, embroidery, metalwork, stone and wood sculpture—the exhibition offered a veritable treasury of medieval delights.

The exhibition was divided into five categories that defined general functions of medieval objects and described how medieval arts depict natural motifs. These groupings neither reflected a critical examination of the term nature nor acknowledged recent ecocritical or environmental inquiries and scholarship, but that in no way detracted from the overall success of the show. A great deal of thoughtfulness guided the organization and design of the exhibition, and an eye sensitive to the formal and artistic qualities of the objects directed their placement and settings. Jewel-toned gallery walls beautifully enhanced the sparkle of gilded reliquaries, and pointed archways connecting the galleries framed views of large tapestries. Stained-glass panels set into the walls were backlit to illumine their glowing colors and highlight hand-painted details. Accompanying several books of hours on loan from a private donor were screen displays that encouraged visitors to leaf through digitized manuscripts and learn more about these prayer books. A gilded timeline outlining the main events of the Middle Ages decorated one wall. Additional creatures skipped along baseboards, and wall texts drew connections between the medieval and modern worlds—one, for example, posited that today’s Pokémon is the modern equivalent of a medieval bestiary. This emphasis on the beauty, intrigue, and playfulness of the objects made the medieval world accessible to a viewing public whose last glimpse of the Middle Ages at the Dallas Museum of Art was in the 2010–11 exhibition The Mourners: Medieval Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, with its large color illustrations, lends a scholarly context to the objects. Michel Zink’s essay, “Nature in the Medieval World,” is replete with quotations from poems and references to specific medieval authors, such as Boethius, and texts, such as The Romance of the Rose. His detail-oriented discussion nicely balances Michel Pastoureau’s essay, “The Place of Animals in Medieval History,” which offers an interesting overview written with a more general public in mind.

The first in a series of small rooms, given the title “Flora and Fauna from the Romanesque to the Gothic,” introduced viewers to the general themes and materials of the exhibition. Glistening white stone capitals carved with the repetitive patterns and energetic forms typical of Romanesque sculpture were the first objects displayed. Set at varying heights atop freestanding pillars and against the walls, the capitals evoked a church-like space where visitors could closely examine their foliate nooks and figural crannies. Around the corner, exquisite brooches—one shaped as a seahorse and another as a dog—presented an antique counterpoint to a surprisingly large reliquary chasse of Saint Fausta from mid-thirteenth-century Limoges, France. A set of sixteenth-century Hispano-Moresque tiles decorated with animals and a Hispano-Moresque spice pot with dense blue and gold patterns nicely acknowledged the range of cultures that fall within the label of medieval Europe.

Another display, “Nature and Symbolism in Christian Art, Real and Imagined,” included an exciting selection of objects grouped into smart clusters around a large gallery. The ca. 1400 bronze unicorn-shaped aquamanile (water jug), from Nuremberg, Germany, with its curved, twisted horn, wide-open mouth, and spigot adorned with animals, nearly leapt from its case to welcome visitors. Enameled liturgical objects from the prolific workshops at Limoges were well represented by a wonderfully detailed Eucharistic dove with some but not all of its enamel and cabochon glass still intact and a crosier of Saint Michael and the dragon in which the archangel stood inside the serpentine volute as red-eyed basilisks intertwined around the knob and stretched down the staff. In one corner of the room, two examples of the prolific Jesse Tree iconography were thoughtfully juxtaposed. A horizontally composed tree carved into a wooden panel for a sixteenth-century chest from the southern Netherlands displayed raised branches supporting robust half-length figures. This wooden relief complemented two thirteenth-century stained-glass panels, likely from the abbey of Gercy, in France, that luminously depicted the Virgin and Christ in the uppermost boughs of a vertically arranged tree. Another corner of the room revealed a lighter side of liturgical art with a pair of fifteenth-century wooden misericords carved with scenes of pigs playing music and a fox preaching to chickens. An especially lovely grouping of objects included an enamel quatrefoil depicting Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, made not long after his canonization in 1228, in conjunction with a twelfth-century metal book cover depicting personifications of the four rivers of paradise around the triumphant Lamb of God. The detailed craftsmanship, visible in the colorful enamel leaves surrounding Francis and the carefully limned torsos and rivulets of the personified rivers, was well served by careful lighting and an angled display.

Though many objects survive in nearly pristine condition, such as the thirteenth-century reliquary monstrance with its clear rock-crystal body, the inclusion of works bearing the marks of passing centuries was a strong reminder of just how fragile the connection is between the medieval world and our own. For example, the headless limestone sculpture of the Virgin and Child and the stone figure of Saint Eustace missing his hands both realistically demonstrated the consequences of the passage of time. Nonetheless, their fragmentary condition allowed for an appreciative consideration of what has survived of their polychrome surfaces and pitted materiality. In the gallery “Nature Observed in Gothic Decor,” thirteenth-century stone capitals and fourteenth-century stained glass displaying identifiable foliage suggested changing attitudes about the identification of natural motifs in the arts.

In the second large room of the exhibition, “Plants and Animals in Everyday Life,” the array of objects spoke to individual lives more than institutional settings. A large, early-sixteenth-century tapestry depicting individuals, loving couples, birds, and other animals against a millefleur background dominated the room. Smaller tapestries portrayed patterned views of couples courting and animals cavorting within densely floral and wooded settings. A fourteenth-century carved-ivory mirror case and a leather and wood casket both translated this popular imagery onto smaller, more intimate objects. Further offsetting the grand scale of the tapestries were precious enameled plaquettes, dating to approximately 1300, and the grinning copper head of a marten complete with teeth made from bone. Several books of hours revealed jewel-toned illuminations and border decorations as lustrous as the gilt-silver, stone, and red-velvet belt from early-sixteenth-century Germany also included here.

The final room, centered on the theme “Representing Landscapes in Late Medieval Art,” included objects generally dated to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The stained-glass roundels, books of hours, tapestries, and oil panel painting rendered distant horizon lines, well-populated vistas, and identifiable flora and fauna. Throughout the exhibition, an array of artistic media and styles thoughtfully recreated and responded to many elements of the natural world by means of material, iconography, composition, and metaphor as well as by observation. Given that abundance, it was a little disappointing (to this medievalist) that the final room capped the exhibition chronologically with an early-modern preference for verisimilitude. This ending reinforces both a comparison between the less mimetic style of medieval art and that of the early modern era and also the troubling narrative that medieval art advances to become increasingly naturalistic. Verisimilitude should not be the overarching signifier of deliberate, thoughtful engagement between the arts and the natural world. Nevertheless, it was easy enough to turn around in this final room and venture back into the spaces where artifice and nature converged with creativity, piety, and playfulness across a variety of medieval arts. 

Danielle Joyner
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University